Official Synopsis: Looking for Kool is a journey of one woman’s life and the heavy price of war. Mrs U has survived the war by retreating to an underground bunker where she relies on her wits and on kool, the stew that gave comfort during famine, and crisis. Kool now connects her to the past and to her family scattered around the world. Confronting her death, she hijacks some war tourists, taking them on a journey, while recounting moments from her bittersweet life, her guilt and loss.
Written & Performed by Rani Moorthy
Directed by Ed Higginson, Designed by Rachana Jadhav
A Play Like No Other
On the 22nd April I attended a play about Sri Lanka which was being held as part of Alchemy, a celebration of South Asian art and culture at the South Bank Centre.
I have struggled while writing this blog post because i just didn’t think there was any way that I could recreate the experience of seeing this play in words. Because this play didn’t simply have to be seen, it had to be felt. The blurb above might give you a sense of the subject of the play, but not its form, which was what made it remarkable. Every play promises to take you on a “journey”, to transport you; that’s what art is all about. But Looking for Kool did it literally.
Standing in a small lobby at the Royal Festival Hall with only about 15 other people, I suspected that this was going to be a somewhat “cosy” audience but when “Mrs U” waylaid us and dragged us down to the labyrinthine tunnels under the Royal Festival Hall, I realized it was going to be a much more intimate experience. The underground corridors themselves became the “sets” and we became characters, inhabiting the same space as the actress Rani Moorthy. We couldn’t sit back and watch from comfy auditorium seats; instead we were compelled to walk, and interact with her, (we even paused to drink a cup of Mrs U’s steaming kool stew) blurring the distinction between audience and performer. Wandering through that dark underground maze was quite a disconcerting and disorientating experience; but that was entirely the intention. To replicate the environment of a bunker: the feeling of enclosure, of suffocation. I was certainly quite glad to escape at the end, even if that escape was into the cold, wet, streets of London!
But the path that Rani Moorthy took us on was not just through the physical space of the underground corridors of the Royal Festival Hall. It was also through the emotional, temporal and geographic space of memory and life, as she played not only the aging matriarch in Sri Lanka, “Mrs U”, but also different characters from one diasporic family; a Malaysian nephew, and British and Canadian granddaughters. While not all were portrayed as convincingly as others, you have to admire Moorthy’s energy and commitment.
Life, death, survival, pain, mourning, love; Looking for Kool evoked these emotions most effectively through its imaginative form, not by fancy staging or theatrical trimmings. This was immersive, experiential theatre
What was interesting, however, was the degree to which it divided the audience’s opinion. I have to agree with some of the criticisms I heard about the writing (it was argued that the subject could have been tackled in more depth and nuance). While I did not agree with every point articulated I had nothing but the utmost appreciation for the daring risk taken with the play’s form. It’s not a bad thing when art stimulates lively debate; at the very least it gets people talking and thinking. In fact my main criticism is that the play had such a short run. It would have been interesting to expose more people to the experience and to hear their take on it.
I think one reason why I found the play so powerful was because a few moments resonated particularly strongly with me:
- Memories: Mrs U led us to one particular wall, on which old family photos were stuck haphazardly with names scrawled into the paintwork, almost as if she was trying to inscribe their names so they would never be forgotten, almost creating a monument to those who had been lost. These were particularly poignant for me as I have been trying to find a way to commemorate my own family history after unearthing a collection of similar photos. As I stood there looking at those photos, hearing this woman reminisce about her loved ones, it felt like we were in a living museum; a chance to collectively commiserate over the many losses we had shared and to commemorate a turbulent past.
- Maps: Another corridor held a series of maps, each depicting different elements of the same tear-drop shaped island of Sri Lanka. One showed administrative districts, another was topographical, geological, political and so on… until at the end, the final map, a simple outline of the island but riddled with bullet-holes, slashed and ripped as it slumped lifelessly, against a black wall. To me this visual demonstration vividly articulated the point that a land, a nation is made up of more than just lines on a page.
- Mourning: For me, the highlight of this immersive theatre experience was the recreation of Mrs U’s funeral pyre, complete with the heavy scent of burning incense, and flickering oil lamps. Instead of just observing this moment passively, we were invited to actively take part in it, to take a handful of dried petals and lay them respectfully on the shrouded body of the departed. It felt real, particularly for me, as it recalled my own grandmother’s funeral from last year, a memory still fresh in my mind.
These resonant moments made the play a very moving experience, because they powerfully brought to life the human side to war, the emotional trauma sustained not just by the individuals who lived through it but also by generations in years to come and foreign lands.
For more information, and an interview with Rani Moorthy, please follow the links below: