Review: The Djinns of Eidgah, Royal Court
Come the interval of Abhisek Majumdar’s play, I was utterly at sea: unsure about the three, possibly four, overlapping stories it was telling; unsure quite how they related to one another and, most problematically, unsure of their context. By its final few scenes, I was gripped and faintly horrified. Given that football is a central pillar of The Djinns of Eidgah, it would be tempting to call it a play of two halves. It is, but the shift isn’t as simple as all that.
Let’s take them backwards. The context is Kashmir. Or rather that’s the setting. The context proper is that Kashmir is in the grip of a very particular territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, one Al-Jazeera has called ‘The Forgotten Conflict.’ Three wars have been fought over the region in sixty years and, recently, simmering unrest has started to boil over again. It is, to all intents and purposes, an occupied zone. In fact, it is the most militarised such zone in the world – a fact Guinness has verified.
Majumdar’s play follows a number of Kashmir residents: a talented young footballer Bilal (Danny Ashok) with a shot at escaping the region on the basis of professional trials; his sister, 16 but stuck with a mental age of 10, a figure that coincides with her father’s death; her psychologist Dr Baig (Vincent Ebrahim) and his assistant, as well as two Indian soldiers on patrol in the region (Paul Bazely and the excellent Jaz Deol), braced for a violent backlash over Eid. Into all this, Majumdar swirls the concept of Djinns, a type of spirit – neither a ghost nor an angel, I think, both physical and metaphysical, “made of scorching smokeless fire…pure passion and no reason.”
More than the vast majority of occupation narratives, The Djinns of Eidgah sees both sides. It’s Pakistani residents live fearful lives laced with atrocities. Bilal’s teammates are slaughtered, all with their feet cut off. He himself is tortured; an electrode inserted into his penis. Meanwhile two Indian soldiers realise they’ve been deserted by their superiors, stationed solely to enflame a protesting crowd and die at their hands. On the ground, no one is in control; there aren’t really goodies and baddies. The political currents swirling above them, much like Djinns, sweep the situation away. By the end, Richard Tywman’s production achieves a haunting, concentrated power, as the bodies pile up like a motorway smash.
It’s a play that rewards those that stick with it. It takes a while to come together, as narrative strands are slow to approach each other. It’s like a fog that gradually lifts – and that raises some really fascinating questions.
Would it be a better play if it were clearer, that is, if it explained its context? That depends on how one thinks about the context of a performance. This is not a play written, first and foremost, for English audiences. For comparison, think of a Kashmir production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. You can’t blame the playwright for not explaining information that local audiences would instinctively understand. So what’s the Royal Court’s responsibility to its audience? Should it tweak the text to explain unfamiliar terms? If so, how does that sit with the historic Royal Court principle that a production defers to the text and the playwright? There’s no simple answer to that – and, in the sense that the play comes good, that is, clears up and wins your attention, there doesn’t necessarily need to be. It’s possible, in fact, that it has all the more power because it sends you off with an urge to do some research, to fill in the gaps in your knowledge, rather than simply shrugging off the production.
However, there is another level to the cultural context. By way of illustration, look at Tom Scutt’s costume design, which has various Indian soldiers kitted out in combinations of body armour and cricket kit. This might look like a straightforwardly aesthetic decision, an imposition – a comment on a wider context of sporting rivalry that chimes with the play’s focus on football. I’m told, it’s not; that soldiers do actually wear cricket helmets and shinpads. The point is that we – a British audience, presumably largely ignorant of Kashmir – read into things in ways that aren’t intended, while others elements pass us by entirely. True, that happens with every production, but it is particularly pronounced here. You can say something similar about his set design, an enormous loom that certainly wraps the whole thing in an economic context – textiles being one of Kashmir’s primary industries (think: cashmere) – but to us, also triggers thoughts of global inequality in a way that it probably wouldn’t to a local audience, potentially used to working with that machine.
There’s another layer to all this, of course, which is the way a critic watches as opposed to the way a regular punter watches. For a critic, to feel all at sea is an unnerving experience. One knows that one has to write a response and that response should demonstrate an understanding of what one has seen. It’s hardly surprising that the instinct is to wish – as almost every review has done – one had more context. Yet by the end the play resolves that tension, cohering enough that any anxiety fades. So does an audience need more context beforehand? Should the Royal Court be providing cheat sheets or should they let the play do its work and possibly even push people into homework subsequently? Or is it perhaps the critic’s job to provide the cheat sheet and give any subsequent audience members the stepping stones they might require to access the production?
The Djinns of Eidgah is not new writing as we have become accustomed to it (in this country or, at least, at the Royal Court); the sort that indicates exactly what one should be looking out for by repeated words and threading motifs through a text; the sort that provides all the dots for you to join. Often it exists in a sensation, as if its meaning were carried on the wind or in the bristles on your back. And above your head, the strings of that loom vibrate, as if the Djinns were at work throughout. Perhaps we have to trust them to whisper directly into our brains and so provide the contextual understanding we might need.