Driving to Chapel off Chapel tonight, I was filled with excitement. When I think of Bollywood I see big, bold, larger than life dance routines, colour, excitement and happiness. The Perfume Garden was originally put on in 2007 at Gasworks but then moved to The Athenaeum and now, ten years later, playwright Rajendra Moodley has brought audiences a ‘reworked and rewritten’ version with the idea of bringing in a ‘live Bollywood Extravaganza.’
The Perfume Garden tells the story of Anand (played by the playwright Rajendra Moodley) and Devi (Sacha Joseph) on their ‘proposal day’. They have been dating for a time that neither of them can agree on and she is pushing for him to marry her as the impending expiration of her Visa is fast approaching. Adding to the pressure, are Anand’s parents Satya (Vishwajeet Pradhan) and Chitra (Laura Lattuada) who are embarrassed that their son is still not married and are concerned with how their family is being perceived by others. Rounding out the main cast is Ayah (Khema De Silva) a stroke victim who Anand talks to in his fantasies.
Upon entering the auditorium, we are wowed by a stunning pre-show lighting state, as we have come to expect with Jason Bovaird’s designs. This incredible lighting was continued throughout the show with memorable moments like the blue textured spot on Anand at the start of Act 2 and the final spot on Ayah at the end of the show. However, the transitions between some scenes with unnecessary blackouts, coupled with strange blackouts in the shop during the doctor’s surgery scene were weird and noticeable. The assumption is that they were there to represent time passing but I feel like there may be better ways to do it.
The set looked like it could fit straight into Little Shop of Horrors, a drab and dull interior of the family’s spice shop complete with a cabinet for the colourful bottles of perfume. The set fit the play and story very well, the off-kilter pictures, broken open/close sign and water stains on the walls were an appreciated detail and the pop of colour from the beautiful painting at the back of the shop really shone. With two other designated areas to either side of the main stage for the lesser scenes, it lent itself to smooth transitions between scenes that was a missed opportunity by director Paul Watson.
The biggest downfall with this production was the direction and performances. The first act was downright confusing, with what felt like so many strange conversations between characters that didn’t actually drive the story forward, which at one point toward the end of Act One had me thinking ‘I literally have no idea what is going on and what story you are trying to tell me.’ I’m not sure if this was an issue with the script, or if there wasn’t enough discussion in the rehearsal room about how to tell the story clearly. Act Two, thankfully was a lot more clear with its vision and direction that allowed this reviewer to finally understand the story. That being said, most of the performances felt flat and felt like the performers were just going through the motions. It lacked spontaneity and most importantly it lacked the fight from most of the characters that keeps a play interesting.
Moodley’s performance felt like he has played Anand every night for a thousand years and hadn’t found anything new in it recently. There was no flow in his performance and often it felt like he went from being calm to frustrated to angry to bored with no build at all. I couldn’t help but feel it perhaps would have been played better by someone who wasn’t so heavily involved with the script.
Pradhan had a bulk of the ‘laugh lines’ in the show but on many occasions failed to land the gag leaving the audience to awkwardly laugh but more so out of the quality of the written line rather than the delivery. He also had these strange moments where it seemed he was breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience leaving me feeling disconcerted. Was this a deliberate choice from Watson, and if so, why didn’t any of the other characters do the same (with the exception of Anya which will be discussed later) or was it the actor not realising he was doing it, and therefore why was it not stopped by Watson?
Joseph’s performance often felt like there were no stakes for the character. Devi is determined to get married so that she doesn’t have to go back to India but she lacked the urgency to make it believable or for the audience to really care whether or not she won that fight. This was amplified in a bizarre scene where Ayah is speaking and Anand is holding the door to the shop closed while Devi is silently banging on the flimsy door with plastic ‘glass’, which meant I didn’t feel her desperation to get into the shop. Instead the atmosphere of this scene was just plain awkward. I was never really sure about whether Devi really loved Anand or whether she just wanted to get married to stay in Australia.
Overall, I never really believed the relationship between Anand and Devi. During the first few scenes, maybe because of the script, I thought they were brother and sister, it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes in I realised they were a couple. I also never really believed, Anand had the sexual urge for her as explored a number of times in the script and ultimately Anand’s bugbear with Devi that she never shows him enough intimacy. The feel of the brother and sister relationship lingered the entire show, despite what each were saying.
The saving graces were Lattuada and De Silva. While in most of the first act, we hear little from Lattuada’s character, Chitra, we did get a real sense of her character in her speech about wanting to turn the spice shop into a beautiful tea house, which was one of the highlights of the show. Likewise, Ayah’s frustration about essentially being jailed to her head while the world happened around her was mostly interesting and engaging. These were brought to life in fantasies had with Anand, where she was able to step out of her catatonic state and explain to Anand the struggle she has every day. The fact that Ayah’s scenes were in the fantasy world of Anand, meant that the times she broke the fourth wall worked for this character. De Silva’s characterisation and embodiment of Ayah, especially when she was crippled in the chair, was most enjoyable to watch. I couldn’t help but feel, however, that she was miscast as ‘old biddy’ Ayah, when it was clear to the audience that she was being played by quite a beautiful young woman with terrible make-up and wig to try and show age.
The cast was rounded out by members of Ignite Bollywood and the Victorian State Ballet. Judging by the number of names in the cast list, I can only assume that this part of the cast, that intersperses the story with Bollywood dance numbers, is rotated on a nightly basis and unfortunately it shows. Firstly, the music in these numbers was not nearly loud enough which left rather insipid routines that also barely linked to the story and jarred the overall show. The dancers were never in sync with each other and there were only two that stood out as embracing the Bollywood genre with the huge smiles, the sharp dance moves and hitting the beat. There were a number of dancers that lost their steps and the incessant lip syncing of one dancer was off-putting and distracted from the rest of the dancers.
The sound, as mentioned earlier was far too quiet for the dance numbers but then far too loud for the sound effects like the phone ringing and the watch beep. The voice over recordings, or perhaps judging by the microphone that the audience walked past on the way out, the live voice overs, were flat and monotonous and also far too quiet. The costumes in the dance numbers were beautiful and vibrant and I wonder if the dull shop had have been lit more, that the costumes would have popped like the painting at the back of the store. The only oversight with the costumes was the lack of a crease ironed down the front of Anand’s jeans as so specifically brought up in one of the scenes.
I feel that the script has a lot of potential and if the first act was stripped back a lot more it would be more engaging for the audience and easier to follow. Moodley probably needs to step out of the role of Anand so he can truly sit down and see what works and what doesn’t in a story that he has clearly put a lot of work into and many years. Unfortunately, this production was too stale for my liking but I hope the spontaneity and fun can be injected into it which is what I picture when I think of a ‘Bollywood extravaganza’.