Presented by Elephanta Theatre
written by Rajendra Moodley
directed by Babs McMillan with Raj Moodley, Evelyn Krape,
Anastasia Malinoff, Shireen Morris,
and Greg Ulfan
Beginning life as a novel, Raj Moodley’s The Perfume Garden has had a long and intricate genesis. Debuting in its first incarnation at the Malthouse’s Tower Room in 2001 following an Arts Victoria grant and workshopping under former Playbox Artistic Director Aubrey Mellor, it resurfaced in 2004 under its present name at the Beckett Theatre, before once more undergoing extensive reworking. The material has been expanded, a new cast is at work, and the hand of a new director, Babs McMillan, steers this strange ship of souls in the expansive space of Gasworks.
The Perfume Garden tells the story of Anand (Raj Moodley), a directionless young man from a loving (if overbearing) Indian family whose imagination is exceeded only by his skill in secretly creating exotic perfumes. His parents, spice store owners Chitra and Satya (Anastasia Malinoff and Greg Ulfan), have arranged for him to wed the beautfiul young Devi (Shireen Morris), whose visa is due to expire. At the margins of their lives is the wheelchair-bound Ayah (Evelyn Krape), who has been unceremoniouslty left in their care by absent relatives who show no signs of returning – but whose stroke bound body proves the perfect vessel for a visitation from the spiritual world.
There is much to admire in this present production of The Perfume Garden, but it is burdened by attempting to be something it isn’t. Despite its ostensible claim to be an Australian Bollywood production, the fantasy dance sequences are uninspiring video projections that are insufficiently integrated with awkwardly choreographed stage routines, which are too long to be engaging. There are also some inexplicable staging decisions made by director Babs McMillan, with the vast space filled with set seemingly for the sake of being filled. The spice store is left empty for the second act, leaving the stage unbalanced, and an appealing space at the far left of the audience is used only as a kind of antechamber and serves no function but for extended entrances and exits. This all has the strange effect of making the action seemed cluttered, centred as it is around a couch and coffee table. For the Bollywood theme to have really taken wings, it perhaps would have served better to have had a more fluid dynamic with movable dressings and live dance sequences, taking advantage of the huge dimensions of the Gasworks theatre to capture the magic of this most audacious genre.
In its favour, The Perfume Garden is an entertaining show with a rich comic and cultural sensibility. The initally insipid Anand takes on a deeper and more appealing dimension when he conjures a genie, who gives a mischevious sound and movement to the invalid Ayah. The relationship between Anand and Ayah forms the heart of the show, and Evelyn Krape is brilliant in evoking the otherworldly physicality of Kali in all her mischevious wisdom. Similarly, the supporting cast are comfortable in the comic domain the play provides them with, Greg Ulfan as hapless dad Satya being especially noteworthy. Raj Moodley shows himself to be a more accomplished writer than performer, though when the material moves into the spiritual his performance takes on more weight and substance.
The Perfume Garden is a strange creature, full of humour and subtle spiritual resonance, and the writing really shines in parts. Its latest iteration, however, makes too many missteps to be a resounding success, and it may be that perhaps the stage is not the ultimate destination for the work as it now stands. Somehow, there is a feeling that the screen may be the place where it will really find its legs.