Sir Vidia's Shadow

Superb acting and careful directing draw out a play about sex and socialism

V.S. Naipaul has been a mandarin for longer than most of the literary world has heard of him. He grew up in a large Indian family on Trinidad, the son of a journalist, and the Caribbean's teeming poverty gave him a lifelong horror of chaos, crowds, and filth. As soon as possible he went to Oxford, and identified himself intellectually with the English tradition that lay behind his colonial upbringing. He writes about Third World countries with a mixture of understanding and contempt; you can't read his books without noticing how much he hates steel-drum bands and reggae. He also famously turned up his nose at Salman Rushdie by calling Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence "an extreme form of literary criticism." Naipaul has nevertheless written some of the century's best novels, and the always politically oversensitive Nobel committee resisted giving him a warranted prize for decades until 2001, when a certain day in September made his sniffy observations about radical Islam impossible to ignore.

His elitism casts a pall on certain writers. Paul Theroux wrote a book about this paternalistic chill, Sir Vidia's Shadow, but in some ways David Hare beat Theroux to the punch 20 years ago with a brilliant if contrived play called A Map of the World. The title comes from Oscar Wilde's essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism": "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at." Hare is one of the most eloquent and measured liberal voices writing plays in English: He's not a compulsive America-hater, like Harold Pinter, or a one-sided editorialist, like Tony Kushner. From his youth in the '60s he owes a lot of his politics to Marx, but he's grown out of that, and A Map of the World was a very public part of the process.

Maptakes place in Bombay, at a 1978 UNESCO conference on poverty. An ill-dressed young reporter from some left-wing British rag complains to another journalist outside the conference hall about general conditions in India. Then Naipaul -- or someone like him -- strolls on suavely and orders champagne. "Victor Mehta" was born and raised in India, so the two men start arguing right away about colonialism. "The India of the rich," growls Stephen, the reporter. "How I despise it." But Mehta the novelist believes that fashionably anti-Western liberals are even more condescending to the Third World than he is. "Socialism," he scoffs. "A luxury of the wealthy. For the poor, a suicidal creed."

The Soul of Struggle: Christine Odera (as a U.N. delegate from Senegal) gives a passionate speech about condescension.
Sue Self
The Soul of Struggle: Christine Odera (as a U.N. delegate from Senegal) gives a passionate speech about condescension.

And they're off: For the next two hours, Stephen and Victor and a few other characters run through the relationship of poverty to wealth, the U.N. to the Third World, and England to her colonies. If that sounds dry, remember this is a David Hare play. He cuts to the essence of his material so skillfully that even the bits about socialism resonate now, in debates (for example) over liberating oppressed Iraqis. Hare also weaves his conversations into a love triangle involving an American woman, Peggy, and adds some international tension when an African delegation to the conference objects to something Mehta has written on Mozambique. Sex, politics, international controversy -- Hare makes it fascinating stuff, and excuses himself for simplifying Naipaul and the young socialist by turning the UNESCO setting into a movie, being filmed 10 years later by a slimy London director named Angelis (Dana Kelly).

Mark Farrell is perfect as Stephen, in his rumpled suit and loose tie; he throws the right amount of angry-young-man peevishness into his British accent. Amy Resnick is solid as Peggy, the American woman -- who adds a women's-lib motif to the show -- and doubles gracefully as the British actress playing Peggy 10 years on. David Winter also doubles well as Martinson, a smooth U.N. official in charge of the conference, and the decidedly un-smooth (in fact obnoxious) actor who plays him. Christine Odera gives two passionate, beautiful speeches as M'Bengue, a U.N. delegate from Senegal. "[Mehta] is hailed as a bringer of truth," she says in a powerful African accent, "because he seeks to humiliate those who struggle."

The whole thing works because of Clive Chafer's careful directing; Chafer deserves as much credit as Hare for avoiding simple answers to the play's provocative questions. Just mounting Mapin the Bay Area and giving Mehta a chance to utter some of his woollier pronouncements can seem impolite, not quite on, but Chafer grants all the characters their fair say, and his leading man, Terry Lamb, is more than up to the job of making Mehta seem intelligent and human.

Lamb is worldly, unruffled. What he lacks (compared to Naipaul) is both an impish sense of humor and a profound Asian gloom, the saturnine contempt that inspires Stephen to blurt at Mehta, "What you call the truth is nothing but a projection of your own despair and loneliness." We don't see that despair; Lamb is constitutionally too cheerful for it. But he fences nimbly during all the debates, and he's in full command of Mehta's strongest lines. "Mankind," he declares, "has only one enemy. It is not poverty. It is self-deception." The best part of Lamb's performance -- and A Map of the World -- is that we sense both Mehta's nose for self-deception and his inevitable weakness for it. "I've been wondering for ages how to drag mime into the new millennium," one of the Umbilical Brothers deadpans into a microphone, "and the answer was -- sound." Sure enough, the Umbilicals' off-Broadway hit THWAK is a brilliant hybrid of mime and what you might call Looney Tunes beatbox. Australians Shane Dundas and Dave Collins have one microphone between them (usually), and what one of them mimes -- cooking on a barbecue, waving away a fly, throwing a dog, firing numerous guns -- the other makes vivid, cartoonlike sound effects for into the mike. Or is it the other way around? After a big introduction stressing that Shane, the "action guy," is the star of the show, Dave makes it clear that holding the mike and producing appropriate noises is a firmer kind of power. "No, not the fly," Shane protests, breaking off midscene. "I don't want to do the fly right now." But Dave insists on the fly. That starts a 90-minute struggle for control of the mike, which stitches together all the skits. The best part of THWAK is the sense that Shane and Dave are just overgrown kids, imitating old cartoons, who just happen, at the same time, to be reinvigorating the tradition of Marcel Marceau. -- Michael Scott Moore

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