Theatre Review – City of Djinns

Can Delhi’s essence be captured in the theatre adaptation of William Dalrymple’s book “City of Djinns”?

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Performed in open against the backdrop of Maati Ghar, the hijras were shocking, the taxi driver vulgar (he urinated on the wall), the Sufis delirious, and the qawwals enchanting. Even the fighting cocks were real, though the snake, sensibly, was not.

All this was easy, compared to the challenge of coherently presenting Dalrymple’s account. Rich with anecdotes and stories, it’s too dense to be bound into a neat script. Just how to seduce impatient Delhites to what some might regard as a spectacle of exotic kitsch crafted by a white man’s pen? Corrupt clerks and highway baraats are everyday irritants, and excessive musings about Delhi’s disappeared glories could become irksome.

What rescued the play from tasting like flat beer were excellent performances (Zohra Sehgal’s cameo received movie star applause) and what-next surprises that lingered until the actors took their bow. Like Delhi itself, it was difficult for the audience to decide where their focus should be. As a Yunani hakeem admonished a limping dancer to avoid eating ghobi, the wandering eye could also spot a GB Road prostitute or even Bahadur Shah Zafar in his Red Fort splendour. All these threads could have gotten tangled if not for Tom Alter. As Dalrymple, Alter laughed, grimaced, boomed, whispered, danced, tripped, ran up, hurried down, holding everyone spellbound with a Koi-Hai accent. He and the play deserve a second viewing.

Directed by Rudra Deep Chakravarti; Produced by Dreamtheatre Productions. The play ran from 16th to 26th April.