I love it when theatre educates as well as entertains. I could tell you a lot about the Spinning Jenny but my woefully inadequate comprehensive education taught me nothing about the British Raj and Partition.
Zindabad, David Conville’s latest play, has just opened at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s intimate Mill Studio and it’s profoundly disappointing that the powers-that-be didn’t feel confident enough to stage it in the main house.
This is a fascinating and insightful drama, filled with political zeal and passion, that is worthy of an extended run and tour. It would be a crying shame if it finishes this Saturday and then quietly goes away.
Conville has invested a lot of his own family’s experiences in this blisteringly good piece. Set in 1947, we are in the midst of revolution and rebellion and, with it, fierce fighting by one ethnic group against another (nothing changes).
Britain’s rule of India is at an end and Mountbatten has negotiated the hiving off of some parts to create, among others, Pakistan. What, perhaps, he could never foresee, is that Sikh and Hindu India would clash so brutally with Muslim Pakistan. Once the border had been drawn up those caught on opposing sides were slaughtered, their bodies left to rot in streets and homes.
Zindabad was the battle cry of the militant Muslim League who wanted anyone who wasn’t of their faith either out of their newly formed country – or dead. While the country’s new leaders promised peace and safety, its ground troops were killing without mercy.
Conville tells his story through the eyes of a group of white settlers, who live at the epicentre of this tempestuous era, and their relationships are as stormy as anything going on outside their homesteads.
At its heart is a furtive affair between farmer’s wife Sally Lawrence and her handsome neighbour, archaeologist Harry Lesseps. Lesseps, who is half French-half Hindu, wants to sweep Sally off her feet but she feels compelled to stand by her cold-hearted husband, Nicholas.
As riots and fighting break out the Lawrences, Lesseps, the glamorous Betty Swami, English wife of the Indian assistant commissioner for the region, and the debonair Mortimer Wheeler, director of Archaeology for India, are trapped on the Lawrencepur Farm where tensions quickly reach boiling point.
Zindabad is a splendid ensemble piece, performed by a top flight group of actors that only a fringe venue in affluent Surrey could muster.
The cast is led by veteran TV star Linda Thorson – the gorgeous Tara King from The Avengers (1968-69 before you look it up) – who still looks ravishing at nearly 69 and gives a captivating turn as the wily and seductive Betty. Shakespearean & West End star, Frank Barrie is charm personified as the suave, cravat-wearing Wheeler.
Justin Butcher and Rebecca Johnson play the lovers and give such a credible performance I wondered if they would ever stop devouring each other on stage. I’ve never known kisses last so long.
Butcher’s Lesseps is the epitome of a matinee action-adventure star, arriving to save the day and the gal from her cruel and callous husband, while simultaneously holding off the Muslim militants.
Johnson gives an incredibly intense and loud performance that must be aimed at the mature, possibly slightly deaf, audience members. On Saturday they must have been able to hear her in the neighbouring theatre (still, it’s wonderful to hear beautiful enunciation).
She has some glorious, vintage-inspired dialogue. “I love Harry but I must save my marriage!” she exclaims. She later she tells Harry: “It’s all over my darling. Let’s just hold hands!”
Andrew Wincott, as the cuckolded husband, is suitably heroic and manly, trying to save his marriage, everyone’s lives, and his farm. “The Punjab’s gone mad! There are bodies everywhere!” he announces.
Zindabad opens with an impassioned speech from Ranjit Krishnamma’s Pakistani rabble-rouser, Yousuf Khan. It’s only a small part but well-written, as are all the characters, each one fleshed out instead of stereotypes.
Director Richard Digby Day builds tension throughout and adds to the reality of the tale by using authentic film footage from the time, some of it not pleasant to watch.
The riveting and well told Zindabad runs at the Mill Studio until Saturday.
Tempestuous, volatile and utterly enthralling. Politics and passions ignite in David Conville’s riveting ex-pat drama, Zindabad.