by Stewart Pringle
It’s not quite Big Top meets Big Issues, but Metta Theatre continue their integration of circus skills into narrative theatre in an exploration of the Bangladeshi well poisoning crisis. A sharp and quietly harrowing blend of documentary and aerial dance, Well is a successful piece of awareness raising that draws attention to a neglected issue with sensitivity and striking visuals.
The well-intentioned drilling of tube wells in the poorest regions of Bangladesh in the 1970’s had the tragic consequence of exposing communities to toxic levels of naturally occurring arsenic, which polluted the apparently ‘clean’ water that had promised (and in many cases delivered) such an improvement to their lives. The consequences were appalling, and a combination of insufficient education and funding to rectify the error means that it’s a disaster that’s still unfolding.
Director and dramaturg (the writing process apparently collaboratively mediated by various scientific advisors) Poppy Burton-Morgan has approached the story on two levels. The international scientific and medical community are represented by fragments of recorded speech from Professors Stuart Reynolds and Andrew Mehrag, describing the background to the incident and the effects of arsenic poisoning; while the human tragedy unfolds on the stage and in the air above it.
Performers Leyla Rees, Lindsey Butcher and Shreya Kumar move between silk, hoop and rope to tell the story of young Asha, who finds that the impact of her own arsenic poisoning runs deeper than the damage it deals to her body. In four movements we see Asha’s wedding day, where her sister notices red rashes that she can’t explain, through her eventual banishment from her adopted family and eventual tragic death. Between this we flash back to the 1970’s, where Asha’s mother comes close to death from constant bouts of dysentery – a major killer which the drilling of the tube wells helped to combat.
Well’s greatest strength is in the depth of its engagement with the hidden consequences of arsenic poisoning. The damage it deals to a woman’s marriage prospects, the subsequent destruction of a family’s economic instability, the difficulty of convincingly educating communities about the poison’s slow-burning danger.
There are moments in which the beauty of the aerial work tends to pull against the weight of the subject matter, and where it feels a strange partner for the traditional Indian dance, but others in which the work of choreographer Shreya Kumar harmonises perfectly. Butcher’s clotted, spasmodic dance of dysentery down a long intestinal rope is genuinely difficult to watch, and the language of pouring silks draws important links between water and the specific spheres and working lives of women in these communities.
The sound design fails to fully integrate, with Filipe Gomes’ backdrop of drips and splashings standing at a distance from the movement, and the voice-over work often too muted to fully impact. This may be a conscious decision to retain an intellectual distance from the subject matter, to avoid over-awing and therefore restricting or guiding an audience’s emotional response (this is ‘meta-theatre’ after all) but the lack of punch is tangible.
There may be room for further development, but Well is already another impressive work from Metta. There’s no doubt that the message is heavily filtered by the medium, but the horror of the situation and the human story Burton-Morgan illuminates still seeps acridly through.
Written for Exeunt