Lennox Theatre, January 17
The eyes blazing at you with such malicious intent belong to the only vulture I’ve ever seen on a stage. Yet, despite its savage, flesh-ripping beak, bald pink neck and ragtag plumage, by the end of the 80 minutes you’ve grown rather fond of this vulture, and ponder the viability of having one as a pet.
Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream is surely the first play ever penned about both vultures and ice cream. It’s also about life, death, love, thwarted ambition, religion, moneylenders and chai. And it’s a comedy. Well, mostly. Written by Jacob Rajan (who stars in it) and Justin Lewis (who directs it), and inspired by Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, it comes to Sydney Festival from New Zealand’s Indian Ink Theatre Company, the other key collaborator being the gifted Jon Coddington, who made and operates the disarmingly lifelike vulture.
Rajan’s pretty good, too, playing seven characters without so much as a change of hat. Primarily he is Young Kutisar, a Mumbai chai vendor with a heart of gold and a flair for ineptitude. He’s also a 50-year-older version of Kutisar, looking back on his reckless youth, and those who peopled it. They are Meera (a whip-smart girl who’s stuck running an ice cream parlour), Farooq (a fundamentalist Parsi), Dr Rao (Meera’s ageing aunt), Vibhu (a vulture expert) and a ruthless money lender.
In flitting between characters, Rajan variously shrinks or grows, becomes stiff or limp, acquires or shed charm, and finds seven different voices. He does this so well that there’s virtually zero confusion as to who’s who, even when three characters are exchanging rapid-fire lines. He also rises to the play’s sometimes furious energy, maximises its comedy and melts into its unexpected poignancy. In short, we must now add Raja to Heather Mitchell and Justine Clarke in the list of recent virtuoso solo performances – vulture apart.
The plotting is clever, too, and, despite the simple design, the words and Rajan’s performance create a vibrant visual reality in our minds, aided no end by David Ward’s sound effects and Adam Ogle’s precise delivery of them. As for the secret of why vultures are dying out so fast in India, you’ll have to go along to find that out.