The first thing that comes to mind when going to see a farce, especially one that has been updated to Contemporary Britain, is conviction. Well, after mistaken identity, love games and in this case Chai, of course. For, in order for a farce to work, the whole production must be utterly convicted to working past and with the rigid archetypes of the genre (the overbearing meddling authoritarian parental figure, the perennial bachelor who’s sworn off love etc.) obvious character arcs (said bachelor Rani, who states within the opening scenes of her belief that she will never marry, will very much come to change her mind by the end of the show), frequent fourth wall breaks, and a structure based entirely on dramatic irony (every farce playing on the idea of the audience being in on the joke). The production and characters, therefore, must be directed and played with an energy that is just slightly over the top, with total belief in their ideas/actions and with a completely straight face when discovering or being subject to trickery and deception that in reality, anyone would see straight through. Thus, conviction is paramount, for without it the clichés and rules of the genre suffocate a production, making it feel like a greatest hits catalogue of forced jokes that are long past their sell-by date.
For whilst farce is a genre with long tradition both in Europe and within the Parsee Theatre Companies of India, it is not particularly an easy or sympathetic genre to warm to. High-brow interplaying with more low-brow humour within the same page and often the same sentences and a sense that you should be laughing at these characters rather than with them; many of the archetypal characters proving to be outdated, oafish and extremely unlikeable. Whilst the fun of these original texts is meant to come from watching them get their just desserts, the joy found from others’ misfortune, deserved, or otherwise can sometimes leave a slightly bitter aftertaste.
However what the Tara Arts Production of The Game of Love and Chai (script by Nigel Planer) does spectacularly through its conviction, as well as by utilising the high-emotion, vibrancy of life, and joy that Bollywood emanates, is to create characters in a farce that you like and want to see succeed in spite of themselves. Yes, they all have flaws (both of which they are often aware and not aware of) but all of them like who they are, and never mean to hurt or cause pain for others. Every action is seemingly stemming from love or the belief that what they’re doing is genuinely helpful; such as matriarch Kamala-Ji’s meddling to ensure her daughter and niece’s happiness. In typical farces you usually want the characters to suffer, whereas here you want them to succeed, despite their flaws and the knots they create for themselves. The humour comes not from laughing at them, but through the relatability of their creating increasingly absurd situations for themselves, as they try to fix what they’ve done, all whilst trying to not lose face. Each mistake they make therefore is not a victory for the audience over the characters, but a way of warming you to them even more as their problems snowball. It is a sympathetic laughter much more attuned to the atmosphere of classic British farcical sitcom ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em’, than the more prideful and ‘look down upon’ laughter of Marivaux and Marston.
Therefore, this is a guide on how to do a farce right. By being entirely committed to updating both the sensibilities and not just the setting to the 21st Century, as well as the vibrancy and pure joy of its Bollywood influences. Tara Arts have created a fun, clever and relevant production which sidesteps the problems and pitfalls of the genre perfectly.
This is also in no small part due to the performances of the talented cast, who entirely commit to the high energy and emotion required of farce and also the aforementioned Bollywood elements. Deven Modha as Khabi Cab Driver Sunny who is disguised as Rani’s wealthy suitor Raj, is a constant highlight, demonstrating the elasticity of his body through constant restless movement and elaborate gestures, that perfectly highlight the character’s self-assurance, slight insecurity and complete misunderstanding of the façade Raj wants him to keep. Sharon Singh’s Rani also deserves huge credit for how she manages to keep her poise and steely attitude present in both movement and voice throughout even when pretending to be her ‘poor little cousin’ Rani.
Like the performances, the direction by Jatinder Verma is also again completely committed to the high energy and emotion required of the genre but also uses subtleties within the larger than life blocking, to ensure the show does not become hampered by the genre’s clichés. For example, by having the actors face forward but slightly on an angle and stare into the middle distance/audience rather than above them, Verma subtly allows the characters to both address the audience but also seem in the moment with the other characters/oblivious to other’s inner thoughts. This then ensures that the energy loss and distraction that fourth wall breaks can create, do not occur.
This mixture of conviction to larger than life elements and the subtlety that can be found within them is also inherent in Andy Grange’s lighting design and of the set and costume design by Claudia Meyer. For example, the use of bright but not garish greens, yellows, and reds, often utilised in classic Bollywood films, within the lighting added excellently to the vibrancy of the show by always giving a hint of passion and hot summer nights to the proceedings. However, by slow fading and avoiding quick lighting jumps, it gave the scenes this extra layer without overbearing or distracting. The same was seen with Claudia Mayer’s use of a bright pink scrunchie in Sita’s hair when she was pretending to be Rani, to show that despite her façade, it was always a portrayal of her cousin through her own eyes/personality’s lens. It was also heavily prevalent in her largely sparse set, with just a set of vine decorated flats as a garden backdrop. The effect of this, was the creation of a space which was both reminiscent of the pared-down sets of traditional promenade farces and gave a sense of contemporary wealthy British gardens. It additionally ensured that the actors were left to verbally and physically spar and were not overwhelmed by the over-crowded naturalistic mise-en-scene often favoured by contemporary productions of classic farces.
There are moments that do not work so well of course, such as the cartoony sound effects during fight scenes, and Nigel Planer’s script can sometimes try too hard with meta-references to the story ‘sounding quite like an 18th Century Farce’ or awkward lines regarding ‘Whatsapp’ and ‘Facebook’, jarring with the subtle updating that the rest of the production has tried so hard to work towards. But despite this, on the whole this is a clever, subtle update of Marivaux’s work, integrating and utilising the contemporary setting and the emotion and joy of Bollywood to create a show that feels organic and fun, and which can be seen as a shining example of how to do a farce in the 21st Century.