Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: (Montreal) Bhopal

Bhopal, the tragedy and the play, revisited
Teesri Duniya remounts successful play for 30th anniversary of worst industrial disaster
by Sarah Deshaies

December 2nd, 1984: a valve breaks in an underground storage tank in a pesticide plant. The resulting cloud of lethal gas seeps from the Union Carbide plant to envelope a huge swath of territory - including Bhopal, a slum town mere kilometres away. 

The noxious fumes leave hundreds of dead humans and animals in its wake; those who escape a harrowing death are plagued with breathing difficulties, blindness, organ failure and other ghastly physical injuries. Today, the final death toll is believed to have spiralled up to as many as 25,000.

Playwright Rahul Varma’s Bhopal, which first debuted in 2001, is a quasi-fictional exploration of the many factors that create a maelstrom like the Union Carbide disaster: negligence, incompetence, avarice, desperation, injustice.

Having been seen nearly the world over, in 5 languages, Bhopal is now being remounted by Teesri Duniya Theatre to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the disaster.

Canadian doctor Sonya Labonté (Stéphanie Breton) treats the slum-living women and children of Bhopal, and she suspects that the nearby pesticide plant is poisoning her patients, leaving them sick and weak. Rebuffed by the slick-as-oil plant operator Devraj (Amrit Sanger) and his wily assistant/lover Madiha (Amena Ahmad), Labonté runs into trouble when her plan to save one mother and child is revealed. Her good intentions twisted into a crude sketch of white saviour hubris, Labonté is about to be trounced out of India when the unthinkable happens.

The strength of Bhopal lies in Varma’s words, still strong and resonant years on. Some of the acting ran a bit thin, nevertheless draped on the strong structure of the script. The execution of the disaster, which we have been anticipating since the start, is no easy feat, and it fell flat. 

Performance highlights include Breton, the conniving Sanger, and Guy Sprung, who plays Warren Anderson, the real-life Union Carbide head honcho, with a sick air of privilege and power. 

This edition of Bhopal has choreography by Aparna Sindhoor and music (multi-instrumentalist Baba Alex), creating a more textured and rich overall performance. Under director Liz Valdez, the story is bathed in rich and colourful light, and the movement and staging is dynamic, designed to play to all audience members.

Nearly 30 years on, one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents looms large, with the human, environmental and legal scars still raw and bloody. But recent disasters like the Lac-Mégantic train derailment remind us that fatal mistakes, magnified by human negligence, idiocy and greed, can and will still happen. That’s why you should check out Bhopal.

Bhopal runs Jan. 16 - Feb. 2

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