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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Husbands
Soho Theatre  March 2014

Sharmila Chauhan's play is not what Hollywood would call High Concept, a premise that can be easily summarised and pitched ('Like Rambo, but on the moon', 'Romeo and Juliet, and they're vampires'). Here is some of what the audience has to piece together and absorb while following the story.

In response to India's low valuation of women and the tragic practice among the poor of killing girl babies as unprofitable drains on family finances, a cult has been formed in a small village that exalts women, who can take multiple husbands, in part to facilitate conception and the birth and nurturing of baby girls. (We're told they've also made remarkable advances in agriculture, but the connection is not clear.) 

The leader of the group is about to marry her third, primarily for his money and property, which will help spread the movement, and husbands one and two are trying to be cheerful and supportive.

But the arrival of a sceptical Englishman exposes cracks in the orthodoxy, notably the accusation that a movement designed to elevate women actually gives them no other role than as breeders of more women, and the discovery that the leader doesn't fully believe everything she preaches, at least as it might apply to her. 

Chauhan may be saying something broad, if not particularly original, about the difficulty of defining gender roles and freedom, particularly as they apply to women. 

But the story she has chosen is so specific and idiosyncratic that it is difficult to generalise from or to find some point of entry for Western audiences, and you are more likely to find yourself observing something foreign and exotic from the outside than making any connection to it. 

Chauhan compounds the problem of distancing otherness by writing in a self-consciously 'poetic' style in which even the most casual conversations are phrased in formal diction, strained imagery and aphorisms you can practically hear the quotation marks around – 'Hungry stomachs can lead people to places they do not wish to go', 'Your body is there but your heart is not', 'Lust clouds but love enlightens the subconscious'. 

In this touring production by Pentabus and Kali Theatre, director Janet Steel, perhaps in an ill-advised attempt at 'authenticity', has led her actors to mimic the broadest style of bad Indian movies (or Western soap operas, or silent films), with exaggerated reactions, melodramatic posing and a generally languid and milk-every-moment pacing. (I would say that all that's missing is heavy-handed movie music and a climactic thunderstorm, except that they're both there.) 

Within the confines of the specific fiction, Rhik Samadder and Mark Theodore are more successful in depicting the emotional confusion of loving husbands and devoted believers about to be partly displaced than Syreeta Kumar is as the leader who can preach with absolute conviction as long as what she says doesn't have to apply to her, while Phillip Edgerley can do little with the Englishman who is more plot device than character. 

The Husbands ultimately works better in its passing documentary-like moments about the preparation of an Indian feast and the dressing of a bride than as an engaging or resonating drama.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Husbands - Soho Theatre 2014

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