Clarissa Hjalmarsson is captivated, unsettled and informed by Abhishek Majumdar’s acclaimed play, The Djinns of Eidgah, performed at the Corpus Playroom, Cambridge.
Two patrolling soldiers bark orders at the arriving audience and we scurry to our seats, unwilling to disagree with these rifle-toting opponents. Newsreels from conflict zones across the world are just audible under the rustle of coats and hushed exchanges. The set is littered with sandbags, the walls scrawled with graffiti in English, Urdu and Arabic, and in the corner stands an arch decorated with barbed wire. As you step off Market Square into the intimate surroundings of the Corpus Playroom, prepare to be captivated, unsettled, and informed.
The Djinns of Eidgah (pronounced Eed-gah), written by Abhishek Majumdar, premiered at the Royal Court in 2013 to widespread acclaim. Under directors Ananya Mishra and Safieh Grace Kabir, the Marlowe Society bring the human cost of occupied Kashmir to life. The titular ‘djinns’ are supernatural creatures of Islamic mythology. Stories of these ambiguous spirits, lying just beyond the material realm, shape the way in which the characters understand and navigate the occupation. Kashmir is widely regarded as the most militarised zone in the world: its central and southern regions are occupied by India, the northwest by Pakistan, and the northeast by China. The Kashmiri people still await the long-promised plebiscite that would allow them to choose allegiance to Pakistan or India, or to exist as an independent state.
The play centres around the stories of ambitious young footballer Bilal (Anand Joshi) and his sister Ashrafi (Eliz Avni), who remains traumatised by the death of her storytelling father (Akalanka Ranasinghe) in her arms. As the region’s rising star, Bilal is torn between the chance to become a professional footballer and escape abroad with Ashrafi, and his solidarity with the political resistance. As he struggles to cope with his sister’s distress, his best friend Khaled (Noor A. Noor), a fellow footballer and committed member of the resistance, implores him to join them against the occupying forces. Simultaneously, two psychiatrists in the government hospital attempt to disentangle their work from their own secret tragedies and unresolved issues, as eminent Dr Baig (Suchitre Seb) is haunted by the djinn of his militant son (Imane Bou-Saboun) and Dr Wani (Claire Chung) tries to bring up her son amidst the conflict. The two Indian soldiers tasked with guarding the Martyr’s Graveyard, Eidgah, (Nusrath Tapadar and Linnea Lagerqvist) remain trapped in their positions, each isolated from their commanders and struggling to make sense of their duty. As the clock ticks ever closer to the Eid festival, football trials, and peace negotiations, tensions over the killing and burial of a young boy grow.
The cast conveys the complex human decisions taken by every actor in the conflict, deftly evoking the struggle to find freedom in a brutal and interminable occupation punctuated by constant curfews. Noor delivers a mesmerising performance as Khaled, by turns mischievous and impassioned. Avni is transfixing as Ashrafi, slipping between reality and the folkloric dastan of djinns with innocence and moments of unsettling clarity. It is impossible to tear one’s eyes from her and Joshi’s unforgettable performances, as they approach the horrifying and deeply affecting denouement of the play.
Ultimately, the play’s greatest strength lies in its beautifully-crafted human relationships, not least the intimacy and ease between the siblings, and the friendship between the two young footballers. Imane Bou-Saboun brings enormous energy as the djinn, and is a perfect foil for the stern and yet tortured Dr Baig. On the other side of the fence, Tapadar and Lagerqvist offer some welcome lightness to first half of the piece, and build a nuanced and thought-provoking portrayal of two beleaguered enemy soldiers.
Mishra’s and Kabir’s direction brings new meanings to Majumdar’s work. Ashrafi’s assessment by two doctors is staged to maximum effect, and a scene in which Bilal and Khaled play football is nuanced and evocative. The soldiers remain seated on the periphery throughout the show, and carry out regimented scene changes, physically manipulating the objects of the characters’ lives and literally occupying the stage. The lines between tradition and modernity, religion and secularism, are blurred, as we witness the diversities of experience and resistance among the characters. The production does not shy away from portraying the unflinching and visceral reality of war, and complicates our understandings of the desire for freedom.
On the opening night, there were moments where some of the meaning became lost in the blur between truth, politics and fable. Nevertheless, the overall effect is formidable; a friend and I emerged dumbstruck and blinking into the cold of a Cambridge night. The house appeared to be sold out when we visited; my advice would be to buy your tickets before news of this daring, compassionate and powerful show spreads any further.
The Djinns of Eidgah will be running at the Corpus Playroom from 6-10 November. For more information, click here.