Theatre: Very long passages in India

McNally's dark night of the soul? Imagine Dostoevsky as an in- flight magazine
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For some, it's fingernails scraping down a blackboard. For others, it's the whirr of the dentist's drill. For others still, what sets the nerves most on edge is a particular kind of dialogue - earnest, sincere, vapid - in which characters tell us far more about themselves than the situation contrived by the dramatist could possibly merit. No! we think, as we squirm in our seats. Don't go on like this!

The prominent American playwright, Terrence McNally, author of Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune, which was filmed with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, appears to be a leading exponent of cute, self-conscious, culturally sophisticated and emotionally explicit dialogue. His characters constantly mistake therapy for drama. Watch a typical scene, and people tell you about themselves, and how they feel about what it is they are telling you about themselves. You long for something just to happen.

In his latest play, A Perfect Ganesh, which has its British premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, McNally sends two middle-aged women round India for a fortnight. Katharine (Eleanor Bron) and Margaret (Prunella Scales) go in search of "adventure", "experience" and "resonance". McNally presents this as a dark passage of the soul. Imagine Dostoevsky rewritten for an in-flight magazine.

Since these two matrons with their Burberry raincoats instinctively know what it is that they are looking for - that missing ingredient in their lives - they don't have to look very hard at what is around them. They just have to get excited at the prospect of looking hard. On the first night in Bombay, Bron walks onto the balcony of her hotel room and rhapsodically quotes the opening line of Henry V: "O! for a Muse of fire". During the play she quotes this speech so often that she shortens it "Offamof". (It's that cute and self-conscious.) "Offamof" is her personal talisman, which is not to be confused with her inner child, which is not be confused with her own children. "Offamof" reminds her to relish the moment. Of course, Shakespeare's Chorus hadn't attended any personal development classes and wasn't talking about that anyway, but never mind. Katharine forgets how the rest of the speech goes, but as luck would have it, the man in the next-door room played the part of the Chorus at college and picks it up from where she left off. At this point, anyone who has travelled round India will be forcibly reminded of a particular experience there. They will feel sick.

"India is the poorest country in the world," remarked VS Naipaul in An Area of Darkness (1964). "Therefore, to see its poverty is to make an observation of no value; a thousand newcomers to the country before you have seen and said as you." Yet still they keep coming. As two of these newcomers, Scales and Bron get to see quite a lot of the top half of India. It's a familiar trail - designed in elegant and spare detail by Robin Don. After Bombay they go to Udaipur, where they stay in the Lake Palace Hotel, then on to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. On the way to Jaipur they travel on the luxury train, the Palace of Wheels. The conversations are as routine as the landmarks: when the train goes through the Chittaurgarh Pass, the stage darkens, and Margaret feels someone touch her breast. The chat switches to EM Forster and the Malabar Caves. Kneejerk responses keep elbowing out actual thoughts. After a boat ride on the Ganges, the trip climaxes at Agra. The two women stand in front of the Taj Mahal. Three hours of theatre, and here it is, the epiphany: "I've stopped breathing." "My heart is pounding." "This has been worth everything." "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

India doesn't emerge here either as a place or a population. Tourist India exists as an Outward Bound course, or rather an inward-bound one. Shallow, sentimental, solipsistic: these women are paying for two weeks' emotional aerobics. Here's Katharine, stretching and toning her five senses: "Listen. Hear everything, ignore nothing. Smell. Breathe deeper than you've ever dared. Experience. Be." Touch that Being! You're nearly there!

Katharine wants to be able to kiss a leper, an ambition she confides to Margaret that she confided to her diary as a child. When faced - in Jude Kelly's low-energy, economical production - with a rather improbable leper, she can't quite manage a peck on the cheek, and settles for giving him 50 rupees instead. This second-best option, I imagine, suits the leper just fine. Not that anyone's interested in his point of view.

From the moment Scales and Bron lug their cases into the airport, McNally outlines the differences in their characters with diagrammatic tidiness. First their exteriors. Eleanor Bron plays the easy-going, casual, careless one, Prunella Scales the fussy, buttoned-up one. (Her surname, unfortunately, is "Civil" which sounds dangerously close to her most famous incarnation, "Sybil".) Moving on to the interior lives, each carries at least one heavy burden. No, that's not their suitcases: Scales has breast cancer; Bron's elder son, who was gay, was attacked and killed by a bunch of African-Americans. She had a problem with gays. Now she has a problem with blacks. Neat, that.

Aids, breast cancer, homophobia, racism and violence: the one theme we've so far forgotten to pack for the trip is Indian mythology. Scales and Bron are accompanied on their journey by the insouciant Hindu god Ganesha (Paul Bhattacharjee), son of Shiva, queller of obstacles. He appears in many guises, though always with a golden pot-belly, jug ears and elephant trunk. He's a useful interlocutor and guide, sometimes resembling Stats in Fantasy Football, viz: "population as of the last census, 813 million. Area: 1,246,880 sq miles." It is hard to imagine anyone treating this ersatz pilgrimage in any way that wasn't satirical, but the only genuinely surprising aspect of A Perfect Ganesh is that McNally handles his characters with tender loving care.

It's impossible to say whether the cross-section of six new plays presented by the Royal Court with characteristic reticence as Storming, its festival of new writing, reflects what younger people are thinking or what the Royal Court's literary team like to encourage. Either way, anyone who sees the two evenings of six plays by writers who range in age from 11 to 23 will notice no shortage of drinks, drugs, sex and disillusionment. They might notice a shortage of laughs.

With only one exception, the short, wacky Business as Unusual, by 12-year-old Michael Shaw, which has an orang-utan (Brigid Duffy) as an office secretary, the plays keep straight, sullen or snarling faces. The Call, by 18-year-old Lydia Prior, is a tightly focused scene between a man and a woman awaiting a phone call. Drink, Smoking and Toking by 15-year-old Stuart Swarbrick has a raucous, intoxicating street energy, though the cast will need to work on their Scottish accents before their tour of Inverness, Aberdeen and Stirling.

Sadly, the best and most substantial play isn't touring. Backpay, by 23-year-old Tamantha Hammerschlag, reveals the different levels of co- operation and suspicion in the new South Africa. A young white woman - astutely played by Valerie Hunkins - visits her old nanny in one of the townships and triggers off an explosive reappraisal of their relationship. Her well-meaning, if facile, liberalism finds the new relationships that develop far trickier and more painful than she could have imagined. Backpay conveys enough turbulence to justify Storming.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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