"Rajesh and Naresh" by ŠITE Productions, Arjun Singh, Brahmdeo Shannon Ramana, Dating, Edinburgh Fringe, Homophobia, India, James Ireland, Madhav Vasantha, Marriage, Sex, Summerhall, Theatre Review, ŠITE Productions
We are all packed into the Summerhall’s Old Lab this afternoon, like day-trippers in a charabanc, to see ŠITE Productions’ new play “Rajesh and Naresh.” This play is leaving the Fringe today, which perhaps explains why it is such a hot ticket. It could have clearly filled bigger theatres for many more days.
In this story, two men fall in love and they then try to square this with their South-Asian heritage. Rajesh is British Indian and he is lost in the soulless world of London finance; Naresh is a cricket-bat manufacturer in Mumbai. The pair meet in Mumbai, where Rajesh has travelled to – or at least, so he tells his mother – to look for a wife. He would really like to find something a little more exciting.
“Rajesh and Naresh” is always skilfully performed. As Rajesh, Brahmdeo Shannon Ramana is smouldering and a slam-dunk heartthrob. As Naresh, Madhav Vasantha is the cheekier and more classically comedic of the two.
There is as much obvious unreality to this play as there is from anything that has ever come gyrating out of Bollywood. But it would work much better as a brainless love story, with the acrobatic playfulness of the two performers herding it along. The audience like the soppy sentimentality and they clearly just want to fill their boots. Instead, this play’s ambition to be more meaningful – its cultural self-importance, if you will – stretches its own limited fabric until it grows perilously thin.
Rajesh wants to be self-fulfilled but he soon comes across as moping and selfish. The play basically asks us to feel sorry for a London banker who can’t get laid. Afterwards it seems rather unearthly that the audience had ever agreed to this. Rajesh will view Naresh as the key to his personal self-fulfilment, making Naresh rather resemble a regime of picker-uppers. In the meantime he mopes and Naresh mopes as well, creating the vague, strange sense of a romance in which the two lovers only need to be distracted from their own therapeutic masturbating.
In the most powerful scene, Rajesh begs his mother to accept his sexuality. The trouble here is that the mother has been hitherto little more than some horseplay and silly, squeaky voices. The story builds rapidly on what it has for a base to locate some realism in her, but if she had been not played for laughs from the beginning then Rajesh’s coming out could have been significantly more gripping. In a magnificent Freudian knot, her role is also performed by the same actor who is elsewhere Rajesh’s lover.
Rajesh is an inmate in the prison camp of British Asian parental expectations. The play is not radical enough, however, to call for a jailbreak. It is clearly too stressful for this story to reject the mother as a homophobe, but neither can it make her realistically accepting of her son’s life choices. The mother thus wanders out of play, a problem that nobody can solve.
If an indiscriminately British theatre company had devised this play, it would be treated as outright cheese and it would not have the Summerhall’s right-thinking applause ringing all around it. I had been creeped out back in 2013 by the hysteria surrounding Yael Farber’s “Nirbhaya,” a circus extravaganza of abused Indian women. The fervour back then for Farber’s play had felt culturally imperialistic. We were all so moved and so triumphant because India had been reinvaded and made to soak up our own superior liberalism. Like “Nirbhaya,” “Rajesh and Naresh” has been “written” by a white British playwright, in this case James Ireland. Like “Nirbhaya,” however much “Rajesh and Naresh” has been developed from workshops and community consultation a white playwright has still, or so his own website claims, “written” it.
[Note: ŠITE Productions describe “Rajesh and Naresh” as being originally “the original work of Arjun Singh.”]