For this Tara Arts production, the enchanting Wilton's Music Hall has been given an Indian makeover that adds still more to its charm. Garlands of marigolds swag the auditorium, old-fashioned advertising signs decorate the walls and the cushion covers, and corners are piled with orange-and-cerulean boxes of mangoes. In the case of the play, however, the food for the intellect and soul does not live up to the ambiance.
No author is credited for A Taste for Mangoes, perhaps an indication of the mistakenly low value that Jatinder Verma's production has placed on its script. The play tells the historical and social background of a painting by an unknown Delhi artist that shows Sir David Ochterlony, the first British resident (1803-25) at the court of Shah Alam, being entertained by a nautch (an evening of Indian dancing). The idea itself strikes the first warning note. A play based on a painting can, like its inspiration, lack the one necessary quality of the theatre: movement. And, though A Taste for Mangoes has plenty of physical movement, with actresses in Claudia Mayer's lovely red, white and green gauzy costumes performing classical Indian dance, dramatic movement is sparse and halting.
One problem is that the play tries to do too much. Not only does it recount Sir David's life story and the incursions of the East India Company, but it also deals with, among other topics, 19th-century Indian cooking (the painter squeezes a mango and cooks naan), lovemaking, jurisprudence, religion and morality. Skating over these matters, the play gives us too slight a sense of the characters' individuality and emotions. While the playing style may be authentically Indian - numerous short scenes in which the actors address us or, politely taking turns, each other - it reinforces our distance from the story. All might be well if the text were exotic and musical, but it is too often merely arch and quaint, full of overripe erotics (the begum says that consummating her marriage was like "a pen inscribing the book of my womb") or Victorian melodrama ("this house has tasted blood").
Further difficulties are caused by the actors' speech (particularly that of Murali Menon's Vizier and Soni Razdan's begum), being often incomprehensible. Gerard Murphy, as Sir David, is always easy to understand, but his beefiness is grossly at odds with the other actors' personalities. Since the resident angered his superiors by immersing himself too thoroughly in Indian culture, this stouthearted Englishness jars with the narrative as well. A play that showed Sir David's transformation from British brute to Indian aesthete might have provided the sense of transformation that is lacking in A Taste for Mangoes.
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