Bittersweet…by Yusuf Haffejee

Congratulations to inexperienced cast for doing good justice to well-written script. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Currently running at Howard College Theatre and forming part of this year’s 150th anniversary of the arrivals of Indians to the shores of South Africa, BitterSweet is a well-written play by Yusuf Haffejee that tackles the harsh realities of colonialism in the 1800’s.

The story deals with two brothers Murugas (Raj Naidoo) and Appia (Lovie Ramas Rai), “untouchables” in their homeland, who travel to South Africa from India as indentured recruits in search of a better life. Now slaves in an unfamiliar and inflexible regime, they find themselves working as cane cutters on the same plantation as the jovial Abdullah (Ruben Naidoo) and the upper caste young North Indian Ramesh (Ashim Saxena) under the supervision of the Sirdar (Denver Naidoo). The appearance of a young widow Parbathy (Shalini Singh) creates friction and jealousy among some of the men, adding to the dramatic content of the production. A further cane cutter character is played by Calvin Pillay.

Director Pranesh Maharaj has considerable stage, film, television and radio drama experience and he brings this to bear in pulling optimum performances from his actors. Radio drama is a medium which demands major focus on the spoken word and his extensive work in Lotusfm drama series has provided him with the capacity to pull from his cast meaningful dialogue that is full of moods and nuances. This he has done effectively, despite the fact that, apart from Lovie Ramas Rai, none of the cast members have any theatre experience.

Recently back from Cape Town after appearing in Ronnie Govender’s Lahnee’s Pleasure at Artscape, Lovie Ramas Rai carries most of the dramatic responsibility in terms of the volatile character of Appia. Shalini Singh – another radio drama stalwart – is charming and believable while showing that she’s capable of a fighting spirit. Former stand-up comedian Ruben Naidoo imbues Abdullah with a jovial energy which belies the painful memory that haunts the character. Denver Naidoo shows good promise as the brutal supervisor as does Indian National Ashim Saxena as the smitten Ramesh. With no information other than that he is an accountant by profession, Raj Naidoo considerably impressed me with his focus and quiet strength in presenting the visionary but ailing Murugas.

Resonating with a message of respecting and acknowledging the struggles of the past in providing a future of hope, unity and opportunity, Bittersweet is presented by Greenlight/Enact and the Ustad Ravi Foundation for Indian Music. The premiere opened with a performance led by Ustad Ravi to promote the launch ofRaag Rung, the foundation’s latest CD which will be on sale at all performances. The foundation is a real family affair with Ustad appearing with his two sons Shakeel (on violin) and Vivek (on tabla and nagara) and his granddaughter Sanam Isseri on vocals and tamboura.

Shakeel and Vivek are featured in every performance as they provide the live background score to the show. There are many short scenes which are linked by blackouts, a process I dislike, but these are eased by the music links which bridge the gaps very effectively.

While Howard College Theatre is a valued performance venue, its bare stage and lack of wing space is more effective for concert-style performances than for theatrical presentations. All credit to Pranesh Maharaj and his team for creating a simple but believable setting of sugar cane fields and basic huts which also allowed for entrances and exits.

Considering its valued subject matter, I believe BitterSweet is an important production and I urge people to see it. I also hope that it will have a chance to be developed further and be presented in a better-equipped theatrical venue.

BitterSweet runs in the Howard College Theatre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal until October 10. Tickets R80 and R60 available from Computicket. Organisations looking to make use of this show to raise funds should contact Farouk on 084 581 8186. – Caroline Smart

About Naufal Khan

Naufal Khan was the Publisher at ADISHAKTI MEDIA and the editor-in-chief of the South African Indian news service Indian Spice. Khan was former Sunday Times journalist and also an occult fiction and non-fiction writer with several published titles.