Aurovilians from the ages of seven to seventy five gave a rollicking, heart-warming performance of the musical ‘Oliver!', the story of the hungry little boy who dared to ask for more.
On October 5th and 6th the Sri Aurobindo auditorium thrummed with singing wenches, a thunderous villain, a grovelling old thief and a flock of starving children. Vaguely familiar tunes like “Food, glorious food” cut through the humid night air. From the opening scene of the workhouse children treading a huge wheel to the climactic but upbeat ending, it was a glorious success. Charles Dickens, who wrote ‘Oliver Twist' in the mid 19th century, was all too familiar with the story's background. When his father became bankrupt, he himself was put in a children's home. Dickens wanted to show the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the Church through his writings. The lively music by Lionel Bart for the musical version of the story is also a product of his working-class Jewish boyhood in East London .
The workhouse children
As usual with Auroville theatre there was the problem of language, or languages. When the villain, Bill Sykes, spoke in Cockney – a working-class London accent – it must have been unintelligible for probably 95% of the audience. The other perennial problem is the huge stage. The soft tones of women and children were easily lost in that vastness; the acting coach Norman spent hours shouting “projects, projects!!” and “face front!”
Singing the joys of thieving: The Artful Dodger (Isa), Fagin (Otto) and Charlie (Stav)
The music, played by Holger on violin and Matthew on piano, swept the show along and the young children were bursting with enthusiasm.
Paul, the initiator, wisely decided to keep the project to a seven week limit. This was partly because it had to fit in with the school holidays and also some of the team had to leave Auroville immediately afterwards.
When one witnessed the finished performance it was difficult to believe that most of the cast had never set foot on a stage before. The professionalism and inspiration of Holger, Matthew, Nuria, Norman and Paul carried them gloriously through and they became a well-integrated team.
Not the best of friends: Fagin (Otto) and Bill Sykes (Krishna) - left
The good Mr. Brownlow (Jesse) and Oliver (Surya) - right
The main characters were sharp and vivid. Jana played the wife of the pompous Beadle, played by Marco, who was dressed in full Victorian regalia but strangely barefoot – an Aurovilian stamp perhaps? Clare played Nancy , the ‘tart with a heart,' who is torn between her sympathy for young Oliver and her love for the villain, Bill Sykes. It seemed as if the brazen hip swinging ‘gangster-girl' role was a tad difficult for her to portray but Clare's bright energy and sauciness in her scarlet dress made her character convincing.
From the moment farmer-musician Krishna as Bill Sykes entered to the thud of his sack of booty on the ground, the audience was caught up in the atmosphere of his violence. He provided the solid feel of dread to counteract the sweetness of the girls' choir and the exuberance of the children.
Otto, head of Auroville Financial Service, was obviously born to play the wily character of Fagin the thief, and brought a touching pathos of humour and wit to his obsessed character. He mesmerized the audience with his writhing, elastic body, bouncing movements and expressive voice. Who will ever forget his wild eye-rolling or his fingers clawing at the air as Bill Sykes threatens to strangle him.
Oliver was played by Surya, a young Tamil boy who handled the English musical songs with remarkable confidence for one so young. His speaking voice was strong and clear and his obvious sense of enjoyment was tangible. Anandi as Bet was exceptional in her grace and polished performance, although some of her songs were a little too difficult for her range.
The real joy of the play was provided by the children. They danced and shouted and sang their hearts out. Stav as Charlie and Isa as the Artful Dodger with a jaunty top hat perfectly caught the tough nonchalance of city kids. The choir of twelve girls sang beautifully and looked poised and confidant in their long skirts and shawls.
For all the children it was a remarkable experience. The sense of camaraderie and working together with adults was inspirational for them, and they came to rehearsals with great enthusiasm and were never late. Everyone agreed that the presence of the children created a high standard of behaviour with the minimum of ego clashes, “as if everything was oiled by some grace” as one veteran of many Auroville plays put it.
The performance played to a full house on both nights. “This is real community theatre and I feel so proud of what we've produced,” said one of the adult participants. Another mentioned how encouraging it was for the teachers to see such progress. “It is so good to see how our children have developed. They could not have performed at this level even seven or eight years ago.”
Maybe the ultimate praise for Paul's creation came from a seven year old girl in the children's chorus; “I don't want it to end; I want it to go on and on for ever.”
All photos: Ireno