Theatre: A Perfect Ganesh, West Yorkshire Playhouse Jude Kelly's production helps the audience to stomach Terrence McNally's sugar-sweet play of two women searching for their souls. By Jeffrey Wainwright
Saturday 09 November 1996
We meet Katharine (Eleanor Bron) and Margaret (Prunella Scales) as they check in for their Indian vacation. McNally's undoubted craft characterises the two within seconds: Margaret pursed and suspicious, aiming to see India "from a comfortable seat somewhat at a distance"; Katharine disorganised and gushing with wonder - "O for a muse of fire!"
McNally seeks what Margaret would call "resonance" by making a Chorus out of the Hindu god Ganesh, a god of appetite and trickery with an elephant's head and a huge stomach, played with great resource by Paul Bhattacharjee. Ganesh explains to us that he is everywhere, "in your cancer", "in the ant on the way to your potato salad", and in nicer places, too. He is happy, cheerful, the god of acceptance.
Ganesh is evidently meant to represent and honour India and so swivel the play out of a western perspective. That he is ubiquitous is, of course, mightily convenient, for McNally can have the benefit of his novelty and make him sound like a cabaret MC. An ingenious device, Ganesh nevertheless serves to validate an action in which India is really only projected in terms of Margaret and Katharine's - read "our" - problems.
Both have come to India for their souls. At first the play raises a sceptical eyebrow at this, but as it follows the familiar pattern of unveiling the heartache beneath the Burberrys - both have lost sons, both harbour guilts and repressions, both have a future portion of pain awaiting - the quest is accomplished. The climax comes as Margaret confronts the leper whose reaching hand she thinks says "love me", and tries to fulfil a childhood dream in which she would kiss a leper's face. She has to realise she cannot, and gives him 50 rupees instead. Ganesh, whose mantra is "allow, accept, be", tells us, "she worried about her soul; he had the best meal of his life". Such "realism" is, of course, just what we want to hear, and to be reassured that we have our miseries, too. Thus are Margaret and Katharine healed and can love. "Come on!" as they say in the loge.
Remarkably, however, Jude Kelly's production manages to slip this sugar down without our noticing too much. Prunella Scales and Eleanor Bron play with wit, tact and enough understatement to keep our toes straight. The design by Robin Don, with excellent lighting by Jon Linstrum and sound by Mic Pool, is wonderfully atmospheric with a beautiful economy of means. Nevertheless, like Katharine's "perfect Ganesh" collectable, this is soapstone not amethyst.
To 7 Dec. Booking: 0113-244 2111
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