Local theatre maker Jay Emmanuel’s latest work is a rich and heart-warming queer story that transports us across oceans of space and time, writes Nina Levy.
Beneath the Music, Encounter
Subiaco Arts Centre, 29 May 2023
If there’s one thing that makes me panic when I’m reviewing, it’s program notes that heavily reference texts I haven’t read.
In the case of Beneath the Music, this included epic Indian Sanskrit poem, the Mahabharata, and rewritings of that poem by contemporary French-Indian poet Karthika Naïr in her book Until the Lions: Beneath the Music (written by Näir, the play is partly drawn from this book).
I needn’t have worried though, creator and director Jay Emmanuel and Naïr had my back. Though I imagine that familiarity with those texts enriches the work, you don’t need that familiarity to understand and enjoy Beneath the Music.
The storyline is contemporary, recognisable. We meet newly married Keshav, an Indian theatre director and dancer living in Australia, and his husband Aman. Soon we learn that Keshav’s mother still hopes to “cure” her son’s sexual orientation. When Keshav returns to India to help his family with preparations for his brother’s wedding, sparks fly.
There’s enough potential drama in that premise to fuel the action and Naïr’s evocative script takes us on a rollercoaster ride of family ructions, seasoned with comedy and pathos. But that storyline is just one of the ingredients in this flavoursome work.
Firstly there’s the cast. As Keshav, visiting Indian actor Ramith Ramesh is immediately appealing as he marvels at the good fortune of finding and marrying Aman. Ramesh captures Keshav’s gentle nature but also his strength.
Also visiting from India, Kalieaswari Srinivasan gives a powerful performance as the intractable Ma. In contrast to Keshav, she appears tough but carries the generational grief of India’s caste system at her core.
Locals Manjula Radha Krishnan and Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson play Keshav’s brother’s fiancée Reva and Aman respectively, both charismatic in their roles. All four performers morph with ease to play minor roles as needed, Robinson particularly notable for his chameleon like ability to embody a new character.
Underpinning the work is Tao Issaro’s detailed score, which transports us from Australia to India, and from prosaic realism to the ancient mythological world of the Mahabharata with traditional instrumentation that drums into our hearts.
The work is shot through with dance, choreographed by James O’ Hara, and drawn from both contemporary and Indian traditions. In a talked-through duet between Keshav and Aman we see the ways they figuratively and literally hold one another, folding in and out of each other’s bodies. Other delightful moments see cast members explode outwards as an ornament falls and shatters, or ricochet during a whiplash inducing car ride.
Sections of movement in and out of the floor are less successful, however, at least at the preview, where multiple rows of chairs at ground level meant that even in the raked seating it was difficult to see when the choreography dipped down.
Perhaps the most powerful scenes are those that immerse us in that aforementioned mythological world, in which we are told an ancient story of gender fluidity and same-sex love. Told twice, this story incorporates a dancer, first performed by Ramesh, then Robinson.
Each dances in a style drawn from the traditional Indian dance-theatre style Terukkuttu (taught by Kalaimamani P. K. Sambandan Thambiran), carving the space with curved arms and curlicued fingers. Echoing the shapes of the dancer with a shadow puppet silhouette, Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson’s projected video transports us to that world of ancient magic that shimmers with light and deep colour, driven by Issaro’s swelling, swirling score.
At times the pace feels slow; pauses, silences and sections in which the characters speak in undertones seem protracted, but this improves as the play unfolds, and may improve as the season unfolds, considering these performers had just two and a half weeks to prepare for the preview.
Ultimately Beneath the Music brings joy. From the perspective of someone who is not of Indian descent, I revelled in the richness of the culture portrayed, in the sense of knowing I was a tourist of sorts.
As a queer audience member, I felt buoyed by a story that finds acceptance, one that traces our roots to ancient texts, that shows us that we have existed since the beginning.
Pictured top: Ramith Ramesh as Keshav and Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson as Aman. Photo: Daniel J. Grant
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