Bhanji’s feet hurt. She’s been pulling the wooden cart (and her companion Mashi) all day, carrying the weight of everything they own for miles and miles. Only a story will make her feel better, so together the two travellers tell the folk tales of the Mughal King Akbar and his wise and knowing advisor, Birbal. Handed down across the generations, these fables from the Indian sub-continent are full of royal folly and the legendary figure, Birbal’s, cunning and wit. No matter the question or the quest – will someone survive a night in a freezing lake? What is the punishment for pulling King Akbar’s moustache? Can you visit your ancestors in heaven? – Birbal knows the answer, and has the most satisfying response.
Sayan Kent’s sophisticated script doesn’t just re-tell Birbal’s fables, but places them within a compelling setting. Banjhi and Mashi perform the stories among bouts of bickering – there is an enjoyably banterous, familial relationship between the sweet and earnest Bhanji (Simran Kular) and the cantankerous but ultimately caring Mashi (Medhavi Patel), with roots as intriguing as the enigmatic Birbal himself. At first their dynamic seems a little manipulative: Mashi (a Bengali word for maternal aunt, which can also be applied to close female non-relatives) is a strict and demanding boss, with Bhanji eager to please and terrified of being abandoned, though with time the true nature of their bond becomes clear. Tales of Birbal is all the richer for exploring this complex intergenerational friendship, rather than offering a simple, straightforward partnership.
The stories are a diversion for Bhanji and Mashi – a flock of friendly crows have eaten all their food, they’re not as far along in their journey as they had hoped, and their hand-to-mouth existence means Bhanji can’t afford shoes, instead layering her feet with pairs of socks. In Sue Pyecroft’s impressive design, their worldly belongings, piled high on the rickety cart, are repurposed for their performances – the freezing lake is a saucepan and the sun is its lid. They’re used to using a little imagination – Bhanji’s favourite toy is a stick that she can transform from telephone to racing car, and what appear to be piles of rubbish littering the stage (old plastic bags, a vacuum cleaner hose) are actually carefully collected items, prized for their potential use and protected as Banjhi’s ‘friends’. Reimagining ordinary items in extraordinary ways is at the heart of a lot of children’s theatre, but Tales of Birbal reframes this slightly by showing creative resourcefulness to be a necessity, as well as a playful way of seeing the world that is to be encouraged. Whether familiar with these stories or experiencing them for the first time, Trina Haldar’s production is joyful, colourful, vibrant and funny.
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