26 February – 2 March, Dundee Rep Theatre
Hardeep Singh Kohli is a rare breed of comedian insofar as his act neither hinges upon nor hides from his cultural heritage. Political and cultural difficulties of the legacy of empire and migration are ever present, but Singh Kohli’s work refuses to be defined by its conflicts, and instead reflects a celebration of multiculturalism and also an optimism towards it.
Clearly, Singh Kohli is a perfect writing partner for Tara Arts’ Artistic Director Jatinder Verma, whose mission it is to experiment with the cultural melting pot. The result of their collaboration, Kanjoos, an adaptation of Molière’s 17th Century French farce, relocates the action to a vivaciously colourful present day India, but also harnesses the character of Elizabethan theatre.
Molière’s comedies already share particular traits of restoration comedy, but Kanjoos adopts a narrative style that British audiences will recognise from two facets of theatrical history. On one hand, there is a sense of pantomime in the characters’ cartoonish actions and comic melodrama (Antony Bunsee fills his miser Harjinder with repeated ticks and physical humour in a recognisably Dame-like composure). On the other hand, the play presents itself as an elaborate storytelling session, where naturalism is abandoned and the distinction between performer and character left in the audience’s hands.
Perhaps an oddity at first, it is difficult to understand why actors have been instructed to sit upstage of the action while not ‘in character’. As we experience the characters lip-syncing to the troupe’s live music, the addresses-to-audience and actor-manipulated set pieces, the director’s intentions become a little clearer; Molière’s comedy can be relived as anarchic non-naturalistic comedy, a situation best exploited by the non-naturalistic Elizabethan stage.
Too much exposition proves a clunky start to this script, but Kanjoos gathers pace and becomes the smooth comedy of errors it hopes to be. The live band gives a stand-out performance worth the ticket price alone, presenting a luscious concoction of Bollywood soundtrack, pop and situational soundscapes (not to mention also contributing their own sporadic comic turns), and singer Sohini Alam in particular provides an intelligent and engaging vocalisation. The clarinetist, Sam Kordbacheh also acts as the love interest to Harjinder’s daughter, Valmiki; a duality in performance that allows his character an aptly rock star introduction from the offing.
Kanjoos ‘set is intentionally circumscribed and does not take up the entire stage, bamboo blinds demarcating the space of the theatrical world. Lighting bars are lowered to just above the set, and the flyman’s ropes operated manually on stage; minimal props and the stylised staging seem to suggest that the narrative is carried by dialogue and story. They enhance the play’s storytelling dimension even if the confident set-up and the play’s concerns hints at an industrial and modern world enveloping the storyteller’s space. Designer Claudia Mayer’s colourful and intimate set and Howard Hudson’s relaxed lighting allow for a harmonious environment which complements the performers rather than competing with them.
Kanjoos draws from a deep understanding of conversation pace and structure, and fans of Molière will surely welcome this adaptation’s faithful efforts to rekindle the comic relationships between characters. Indeed, the mere excuse to lend the performers’ beautifully lilting Indian accents to these words is a worthy experiment. Tara Arts are clearly pushing a multicultural agenda, playfully interjecting the English language with Indian words and rhythms. Unfortunately, this at times yields a somewhat confused result. While adding a welcome lyrical flourish, such instances sometimes feel rough-edged and disjointed, though not perhaps to a more accustomed ear. Furthermore, while Frosine (Caroline Kilpatrick’s stereotypical Westerner seeking enlightenment) bridges the cultural gap by acting as mediator between Harjinder and his desired fiancée, her asides to the audience occasionally stray toward the condescending, suggesting that the production is unsure of its demographic.
Kanjoos is entertaining and enjoyable: this is very much in-line with Singh Kohli’s bubbly and inoffensive comic persona, and that is no bad thing. Nevertheless, despite arranged marriage being central to its plot,Kanjoos offers no real confrontation of values.