Arts and Culture

Review: The Ajoona Guest House

Posted on: Fri 10 Dec 2021

Written and performed by Stephen House | The Bakehouse Theatre, Adelaide | 30 November-11 December, 2021

Festival City’s, Emma Wotzke reviews the currently sold-out season of The Ajoona Guest House.

In the intimate space of the Bakehouse Theatre, a minimalist set gives way to a provocative, confronting and deeply alluring journey into the fragmented, dark passages of a New Delhi underworld.

Written by award-winning playwright, actor and poet, Stephen House, on an Asialink Literature Residency in India, The Ajoona Guest House brings with it a rich potency and deep poetic magnitude.

The work emerges as the final in a trilogy of stand-alone monologues, following Appalling Behaviour, a grimy journey of homelessness in Paris, and Almost Face to Face, exploring the brutalities of a Dublin underworld. Like much of House’s work, each frames a lens on untold stories of fringe dwellers, the marginalised, shadowy corners of big cities and issues of social justice.

The hour-long performance indeed reaches an undeniable intensity. It’s riskier than before. House’s writing, as always, is evocative, considered and lands with rhythmic prowess to capture the sad tales of the colourful characters in and around a seedy, back lane guest house – many which have inhabited the space for decades and many ‘that never leave’.

There is a sense of journey and motion as the audience, plunged into a world of drugs, prostitution, and desperation, just as soon recoil into the pensive musings of the protagonist.

House tells the story with eloquence, with sensitivity.  We soon learn of a past tied with Bollywood films, his former ‘brown sugar’ addiction, party life and his shifting connections to fellow guest house occupants and addicts, Rosie and Sydney. He recalls memories, rocked back and forth into the dingy passages of entrapment.

Executing such a refined solo performance requires intense skill and dedication, attuned characterisation, astute perception and practice. The performance brilliantly articulates each, seamlessly translating experience and vison to stage, but more notably, mastering the fluent shift between characters.

House’s imagery is powerful as he channels his seasoned and somewhat nomadic travelling experiences, referencing the horrors of an Indian underclass; a child with a face damaged for begging, a baby licked by a diseased dog adjacent to a dead body.

Amongst the grimy decay of this carefully crafted world, there is however, a rich tapestry of beauty; moments of gold below the surface of the damaged. There is a sense of spirituality, adventure, nostalgia, of being pulled between raw emotion of a somewhat relatable protagonist in a reflective state of transition.     

House’s signature simplistic set – comprised of only an orange pashmina, block and water bowl, surrenders to imagination under the guidance of his astute work.  Through the noise of the busiest places, deepest thoughts stir; pulsating percussions and atmospheric energy of bustling Delhi streets and cafes are felt with impact. His work often gives way to glimpses of realistic configuration. When asked if the monologues are autobiographical, House is known for responding: “maybe they are, and maybe they’re not,” which only extends the intrigue of those looking in.

The beautiful sounds of classical Indian music by Alain Valodge, further both the narrative and atmospheric journey.  Lighting by Stephen Dean, masterfully matches the script; casting illuminating, tones, generating warm softness and carving shadowed crevices of a drug dealers alley. Renowned South Australian director, Rosalba Clemente, delivers seamless and eloquent guidance in upholding the work’s vision and interpretation to its potential.  The performer-director collaboration between House and Clemente brings a meticulous synergy.

In a previous interview with Radio Adelaide, House said “there is a finality to it [The Ajoona Guest House], there is something that sits in your gut about life.” It is indeed a work that possesses finality, that extends far beyond the stage and leaves you thinking long afterwards.  It is a work that speaks to the beauty in dangerous places and people, to life’s polarities, choices made and unmade, purity in the impure, the state of impermanency and even decay, perhaps revealing that some of the brightest realisations rise from the darkest spaces.

This thought-provoking piece of theatre brings together the culmination of a powerful ten-year project, and a sense of the nomadic, delivered through a beautifully intense journey into the poetic landscape of brilliant story-telling. Although the final of the monologue-trilogy, I am hoping to see the curtain lift on more works by this inspiring and articulate South Australian playwright. While at the tail end of a sold-out season, if you do get the chance to see a re-run or a repeat of any of his performances, I would jump on that opportunity.

Produced by Emma Wotzke

Image provided by Stephen House

Audio: Dhaka by Kevin MacLeod

Festival City

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