Home / Culture / …like going for a walk and ending up in a film set; the original and hugely entertaining ‘Behna’ by Kali Theatre

…like going for a walk and ending up in a film set; the original and hugely entertaining ‘Behna’ by Kali Theatre

I’m usually a stickler for punctuality and passionate about theatre. But the first inclination that this particular night at the theatre was going to be different was the address I’d been given for the first London showing of Sonia Likhari’s ‘Behna’ (sisters); the location is a residence in a rather unremarkable and badly lit street in suitably ethnic Willesden, North London. The moment I walk into the crowded and raucous living room of the unexceptional mid-terrace, I’m pulled in by a group of dancing women celebrating the wedding of someone’s daughter; I’m told that the last to arrive – in keeping with tradition at these “Ladies Sangeeth” sessions – must start a new song. I try my best to remember a suitable number as I’m pulled in by these strange females to the middle of the impromptu dance floor. Bemused, I gyrate with my arms in the air.

At first I’m not sure whether this is part of some sort of pre-show Punjabi ritual but as the “intended bride” turns up and joins in the celebration, it dawns on me that I’m part of the play itself. Soon, as the music stops, the ladies invite me and the rest of the nonplussed guests to the open-plan kitchen diner where the audience is directed to three rows of chairs arranged with a view towards kitchen proper.

It’s a rather charming introduction for me to the world of sight-specific theatre; where real locations are used to add substance to a play’s narrative. And no location is more ideal for this story about mothers, daughters and sisters, than the kitchen; the heart of every household and the shrine where the female heart of every family comes to love, live and often die.

At the core of this story is the relationship between sisters Dal and Simi; the former overweight and fiercely duty-bound and nurturing of her brood and extended family, the latter carefree, flirtatious and forever taunting her big sister’s tedious existence. While Dal kneads the dough for the Chappatis, Simi’s out flirting with Dal’s husband. While Dal stuffs herself silly with Samosas and digestives, Simi’s busy being the apple of her own eye and is doted on by her mum whose relationship with her own sister is equally irregular. Behna explores a host of familiar themes; from British Asian identity crises and arranged marriages to the place of women in British Asian society and of course, the drama and tensions inherent between sisters, mothers and their daughters. The familiarity however is lifted by the unfamiliar setting which blurs the boundary between the audience and the play. It’s disorientating to say the least but all the more enjoyable for it’s a fresh and innovative departure from the ordinary.

The proximity to the audience allows you to truly feel the highs and lows of the relationships, making it easier to empathise with each woman’s predicament, even as the storyline threatens – once or twice – to meander in slightly ludicrous directions. Likhari’s characters are beautifully fleshed out and terrifically authentic and the acting is outstanding, although I’m certain that it would be utterly nerve-wracking for the performer to be at such close quarters with the audience.      

The Indian family and its favoured location for social gatherings have long been a rich source of storylines; ‘Behna’ takes that concept to an entirely new level and is surely the most wonderfully inventive piece of British Asian theatre in recent memory.

It’s like going for a walk and ending up in a film set while the cameras were rolling. An unforgettable experience.

‘Behna’. Written by Sonia Likhari, directed by Janet Steel; starring Sandeep Garcha, Shaleen Hudda, Hema Mangoo, Balvinder Sopal Gurprett Singh.

For more information on performances, please visit www.kalitheatre.co.uk




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