Tuesday 7th November 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
India. A woman is taken in the dead of night under false pretences and her past decisions leave her with no one to rely on for freedom. Enter Sampat Pal, leader of a pink sari clad Gulabi Gang who challenge the patriarchy, call rape by its true and unflinching name and turn a blind eye to nothing. The fact that Pink Sari Revolution is based on a true story makes it an incredible story to tell, and director Suba Das has brought Amana Fontanella-Khan’s story (adapted by Purva Naresh) to the stage with great feeling and plenty of zeal. The story highlights important social issues and shines a light on the illegal practices of those in power. The piece also handles the humanity behind the bigger, more political story with perceptive approaches to dialogue and direction – Sampat Pal, played with exceptional verve by Syreeta Kumar, is a woman torn between a personal need to drive out the misogyny and victimisation around her and a slightly more complex need to maintain a profile to further the cause. It’s a layered play which covers impressive ground well – a little on the overly long side in the second act but an altogether engaging and enlightening piece of theatre.
Pink Sari Revolution, while centring on the life of Sampat Pal and her battle to free the incarcerated woman and to condemn inequality, it is also very much built around the relationships between Pal and the young women in her community – as well as those she does not know. Sharan Phull plays one such young woman in the community – the naïve but hopeful Geeta; someone with the desire to see change and some of the mettle needed to cause it. Yet she is torn between the traditional trimmings and security of a content life and the door marked ‘uncertainty’, where rebellion and danger beckon. Phull presents Geeta’s dilemma with sincerity, easily inviting empathy from an audience. Kumar is a tour de force as the formidable Sampat Pal – a walking hurricane who has nothing to fear and everything to fight for. She goes beyond the cliché of not suffering fools gladly; she breezes straight through fools with a self-assurance entirely at odds with the meek, subservient young women she tries to empower. There are complexities and ambiguities in the character when we see her home life contrasted against her work outside of it which are fascinating to contemplate and the writing gifts the character with some truly brilliant moments – shocking displays of nonchalance, a comical potty mouth and scenes of great gravity in which she demolishes the habit of euphemising rape. If the real Sampat Pal is captured with any clarity by Kumar’s performance, she must be one spectacularly inspirational woman.
With a cast of seven, Pink Sari Revolution does well to evoke key characters within a relatively small but troubled community – the cast multi-role well, but at times the scene changes do feel a little drawn out to cater for the shifts. Ulrika Krishnamurti in particular stands out for her adept shifts between very different characters. As a hostage of a corrupt system, Sheelu, she is vulnerable and counter-productively dismissive of help – telling the story of Sheelu, and women like her, through an emotive performance. Ronak Patani offers us a glimpse of good men in two of his characters – a police officer who joined up to do good and found himself in a fix and the boyfriend of one of Pal’s gang members. As the police officer, he provides an insight into the troubles within the opposition; he appears to be a good man at heart but is caught up in a system capable of destroying him – his interactions with Pal are both comical and surprisingly gentle, a duplicity which has him courting very real danger.
Isla Shaw’s set design is beautifully symbolic of historical wrongs and a present full of rebellion. A tree dominates the stage space and with no set changes, just a little indication of a wire fence to indicate the cell, the changing scenes are played out around the immovable tree. The ground features cracks which shift as the narrative progresses, keeping step with Sampat Pal’s gradual victories with the patriarchy. Costuming is likewise striking – beautiful saris capture the contradiction between feminine aesthetics and masculine aggression – a pink Sari and a stick capable of significant damage make quite a combination. The arrival of the pink saris makes for a blazing visual of the impending rise of the matriarch – but the pink was not chosen for our contemporary notions of gender, it captures a turn of nature which reflects Pal’s self-assigned mission perfectly.
Pink Sari Revolution is a tribute to powerful role models – of powerful female role models who not only overcome their own struggles, but those who are hell bent on creating change and helping others. It’s tragically topical and regardless of being set in India, there are inevitably parallels to draw in the treatment of women. Kumar carries the weight of the production with great energy and is easily the most engaging thing about this production as a whole; funny, tempestuous and noble, she’s one hell of a hero for the young women around her who so desperately need a talisman. I’m not convinced that everything in the second act was needed – it could be sharper with some edits but a slightly generous running time does nothing to mar the quality of what is a great example of a contemporary story of import told with gravity and spark.
Pink Sari Revolution is a Curve, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and West Yorkshire Playhouse production in association with English Touring Theatre. It plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until November 11th and you can get your tickets here.