This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide
based on a short story by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri
Directed and choreographed by Gary Clarke
Curve Theatre, Leicester
Spanning continents and timeframes, Akademi’s powerful production The Troth begins a UK tour at Curve, having first toured five cities in India.
Based on what is believed to be the first Hindi short story, Usne Kaha Tha by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, this production serves to commemorate several anniversaries: the centenaries of World War I, of Guleri’s story (written in 1915) and the birth of Indian cinema, the contributions of Indian soldiers to the Allied war effort and 70 years since India’s independence from the British Empire.
But this implies a war story; whilst the horror and waste of life of World War I is an important element to Guleri’s story, it is more a depiction of human love in its many forms: love at first sight that can never be, love for one’s family and the camaraderie and love between men fighting together in war.
The Troth fuses dance, film projection and music to tell the evolving story of Lehna Singh and his relationship with Leela from their first meeting in an Amritsar market where Lehna, as a young boy, asks if Leela is betrothed to later chance meetings and Leela’s admission she is now betrothed, as of the day before. A victim of unrequited love and with war declared, Lehna promises to keep Leela’s husband and son safe as the 77 Sikh Rifles regiment leaves India to fight in the Belgian trenches.
Gary Clarke’s direction and choreography, Josh Hawkins’s video projection (including original footage of some of the 60,000 Indian troops serving in Europe), Shri Sriram’s haunting score and Charles Webber’s lighting evoke the mood of silent film, resulting in a compelling, cross-cultural and well-paced production.
The sheer physicality of the performance is, at times, relentless. In particular, the drill sequence as the young men from the Amritsar market place are transformed into soldiers pulses with controlled energy. Likewise the confusion of battle.
Combining traditional Indian dance and more contemporary movement, each posture, from the finer gestures of sharing food to the rituals of prayer to bodies forming battlements, serves to move the narrative forward. Subhash Viman Gorania as Lehna conveys great emotional range, although the whole cast are excellent (Dom Coffey, Vidya Patel, Deepraj Singh, Songhay Toldon and Daniel Hay-Gordon).
Guleri’s story quickly became a popular, almost sacred text in India and has long been taught as part of India’s national curriculum. It therefore shows great faith in Clarke’s abilities as a storyteller (and largely on the strength of his production COAL) that the producers have chosen a white British choreographer and director with no previous experience of traditional Indian dance to lead this project; their faith is justified.
Love and sacrifice is at the heart of this piece; The Troth is a surprisingly uplifting addition to the many productions commemorating the Great War, and a welcome creative collaboration between cultures and continents.
Images by Vipul Sangoi and Simon Richardson