Friday, 17 February 2017

Critical Reflections on Made in India

As usual, the following caveat applies to the following opinions: they manifest 'thought-in-progress', not a dogmatic conclusion. The matter of Made in India, Tamasha's theatrical study of post-colonial surrogacy, continues to engage me, especially after a splendid session with Toonspeak's Young Critics. 

At the risk of stealing their ideas - although the ideas' limitation, naturally, rest with me - they inspired me to reconsider two aspects of the performance: whether it can be categorised as a 'feminist' play, and the difference experiences of watching and discussing it.

Through my admittedly minimal definition, Made in India is clearly a feminist script: it is concerned with three women and issues of hierarchy and power. While the disembodied voice of the male politician could be interpreted as the intrusion of patriarchal authority, the power-play comes through the relationship between the women themselves, with the wealthy European, the India Doctor and the financially vulnerable surrogate competing for dominance. 

Casting these conflicts within a context of masculine oppression explains perhaps the ferocity of the battles, and the surrogate's statement of 'my body, my choice' reveals the author's familiarity with wider debates around reproductive rights: nevertheless, the designation 'feminist' here does not necessarily imply a framework of patriarchy is necessary to understand the content.

Made in India does not market itself as an explicitly feminist play: the company is more interested in defining itself in terms of 'new voices' and support for frequently excluded stories 'inspired by diversity'. Made in India, equally, does not provide a solution to the various moral conundrums conjured in the production: the virtue of surrogacy itself is undetermined, let alone the particular hierarchies it imposes on the women. 

Some of its most dramatic moments come when the hierarchies are tested - as when the Doctor threatens to end the European's treatment, and points out how, from the very start of the play, the European has been dominating through her financial power. 

But the hierarchies are in constant flux: it is only when the surrogate attempts to take control that it become apparent that, ultimately, only the position of the most vulnerable can be seen as static.

In my writing of the review (and here is where things might get awkward), I found myself enjoying the experience far more than I enjoyed the 'lived experience' of sitting through the play. Not
massively - there was plenty in the scenography and performances that were pleasurable - but the unfolding of the ideas as I wrote (and then discussed) revealed depths to the script and an encouragement not to embrace any particular resolution but further explore the issues. 

My 'four stars' - roughly - correspond to a statement that Made in India achieves what it sets out to do, with the additional comment that it provokes informed conversation. That's a very particular definition of quality.

And what does that definition imply? That the pleasure or quality afforded to a production is not merely a measure of 'production values' or 'aesthetic excellence', but includes the subsequent experiences that it informs. Made in India is a superb choice for a discussion between Young Critics, because it forces further debate and an opportunity for the critics to impose their subjectivity - and maybe even question it. 

I'll be interested to see how our next discussion on Cuttin' a Rug goes: my hunch is that it might offer a less immediate engagement, and more on theatricality than the substance of the plot, themes and relevance.

I have always insisted that the reader recognises my personal subjectivity, and - being a bit cheeky - only respect my opinion in so far as they are aware of my tastes. My dramaturgical hero Lessing thought that the critic could educate audiences into good taste, but I don't share his rationalist optimism. 

Taste is not absolute, it is the point of connection between a spectator's personality and an art object. I like stuff that forces me to think - even at the cost of insulting my personal beliefs. I'm sure that reveals something about my personality that I'd rather not consider. 

Briefly returning to Made in India, it is a great show for anyone who shares that taste, who believes in theatre as a location for the public discussion of ideas. To be fair, critics tend to like work like that, because they have to have a public discussion about it. I like art that inspires what I shall cautiously call my art. It's not as great show for someone who wants to be simply entertained and laugh or even have a big emotional catharsis. 

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