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Uncaging the Leopard - Phantasmagoria at the Belgrade Theatre

Phantasmagoria Cast - Photo courtesy of Nicola Young

Phantasmagoria, Belgrade Theatre, until Saturday 7 October 2023

Review by David Court

I’m a big fan of plays that just start. Without fanfare, applause or musical intro, a character just wanders onto the stage, and you’re there for the ride. Deepika Arwind’s ‘Phantasmagoria’ does just that, with Ulrika Krishnamurti’s Scherezade stepping onto the single set – now seemingly vast, later becoming increasingly claustrophobic as the play unfolds – to accustom herself to her alien surroundings before settling down. With one of the play’s themes concerning itself about how a voyeuristic audience behaves and reacts, it’s an uncomfortable beginning as we’re forced to watch her acclimatising before shortly becoming an unwitting voyeur herself – or is she as unwitting as she’d have us believe?

Antony Bunsee as Jai - Photo courtesy of Nicola Young

Scherezade is the personal assistant of Bina (Tania Rodrigues), a driven politician due to arrive for a debate with student and activist Mehrosh (Hussian Raja). Brought together for a new personal venture by the ambitious yet idealistic Jai (Antony Bunsee), it’s promising to be an eventful evening. It takes place on a single set – a family property owned by Bina, surrounded by all-encompassing dark woods – and all takes place ahead of a proposed great debate between Bina and Mehrosh, two very different people with very different agendas.

A Phantasmagoria is defined as a ‘sequence of real or imaginary images like that seen in a dream’, and it’s no spoiler to indicate that there’s definitely something nightmarish in the house – but the phantasmic nature of the growls and snarls we hear are no match for the more human and tangible evil at work. There are legends of the spirits of a caged beast, but is it real or simply a metaphor for a rising swell of righteous anger?

Scherezade and Mehrosh - Photo courtesy of Nicola Young

Plays set in such an intimate setting are only as good as the cast that populate them, and ‘Phantasmagoria’ features incredibly strong performances from the small cast. There’s a central theme that sadly will be forever prescient – although seems particularly apt now – about the nature of politics and the culture wars and cult of personality that dominate them, and ‘Phantasmagoria’ is an uncomfortable peek behind that curtain. Despite being set in an unnamed country, it’s easy to imagine it and place it geographically – and no huge mental leap to see any country descending into the same state.

Jo Tyabji’s direction is flawless, featuring some excellent sound design to make us feel as trapped within these four walls as any of the characters. ‘Phantasmagoria’ makes for bleak yet compelling viewing, giving us an uncomfortable glimpse into the echelons of power, and the sinister machinations of those who would use or abuse it. A great - and thought-provoking - evening of theatre.

More details on Kali theatre company can be found here, and the details of other performances of ‘Phantasmagoria’ can be found here. Details on the Belgrade Theatre can be found here.


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