A battle lost and won – what’s done is done

With a formidable cast and Rajat Kapoor as the director at the helm, the production of ‘What’s done is done’, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, gives us many reasons to rejoice, going beyond the re-imaginings of the weighty tragedy.

Not only is the work an homage to the troubled soldier who became king, the artistic license exploited by the director always remained in good hands and did not affect my sensibilities of the play itself. But let’s get the cons out of the way first.

The production is part of a series of adaptations of Shakespeare’s works marrying the clown tradition, where the actors perform in clown-face, sometimes converse in gibberish and live out their lives in the clown universe, using the plot points for a play within a play, and as a bonus, create situations closely paralleling the plot of the play, interweaving with the play within the play.

Whereas most of the previous productions sought to establish the clown aspect of the concept, I felt this play started off with the same intentions, but abandoned it at some point, in furtherance of the plot. By the end, the use of accents was only justifiable with the clever inclusion of two characters, Julio (Jim Sarbh) and Pedro (Vinay Pathak). They acted as fantastic fillers between acts, were so wonderful, I’d just watch a play with the two of them. A special mention must be made of the clown make-up which, as ever, was on point.

The accents used by the characters were a sore point, with many of the actors giving up on speaking in the accents they started off with. Only Julio and Pedro seemed to adhere to them faithfully.

Now on to the good parts; it was a stroke of genius to have the 3 ladies who played the witches, also each play Lady Macbeth simultaneously on stage, given the breadth and depth of her character, and also to spookily reinforce the influence Macbeth was under when he did what he did.

Macbeth review

Pedro & Julio [copyright belongs to the Hindustan Times]

Julio, Julio, Julio; my heart was gladdened by the sweet janitor from Mexico who was the noblest character in the plot. Jim Sarbh breathed life into the part of a tragicomic fool who along with Vinay Pathak (playing Pedro, the other janitor) weaved in absurdity, song-and-dance and just the right nudges to the audience to piece plot points together. Vinay Pathak has been the single recurring feature in all of these themed productions, and brings an active (and reactive) yet assured tone to the characters he has assayed, and is a joy to watch.

At some point, Julio and Pedro, who incidentally claim to be the producers of the play, talk about why it won’t do very well. Julio points out the poor trajectory of Macbeth’s character growth and change. While this self-awareness is good to have, it doesn’t excuse the fact that there was little to show that Macbeth was ever loyal, gracious and had any redeeming qualities and from which he spiralled out into a conniving, overambitious man whose boots got too big for him.

Sujay Saple portrayed Banquo well, bankably. In the friendship between Macbeth and Banquo, the familiarity and suggestion of their existing companionship seemed to come mostly from Banquo’s acting and lines. It was a clever device for him to let down his long locks in the afterlife. But one thing peeved me, him using ‘Monsieur – Madame’ when they’re supposed to be Italian and speaking in Italian accents.

Ranvir Shorey played Macbeth, or Macky B, in this adaptation. Although a talented actor, I believe he started to come into his own only after he becomes Macbeth, King of Scotland. His emoting of the soldier lost in the forest, and as the Thane of Cawdor was awkward as he did not seem to know how to straddle the absurd, modernistic aspect of the play with the consumed and conflicted character taking the plot forward in the play. And perhaps I am biased towards the beautiful speech at the end, but Macky B moved me, as realization dawned and his will to live crumbled and he quoted ‘Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player…’.

Now to the three women who played Lady Macky B. Kalki Koechlin, Tillotama Shome and Sheena Khalid looked beautiful and haunting on the stage. But their dialogue delivery left a lot wanting, and their subsuming of Macky B’s psyche didn’t come across so powerfully even though it was at a ratio of 3:1. Given the complexity of Lady Macbeth’s character, I would’ve thought there would be more drama even between the 3 women. While it worked for the stage blocking and overall effect to have 3 women playing her, perhaps it prevented each actor who played her from fully envisioning or realising the consequences of her instigation.

But apart from just a rendering of the tale, there are exquisite sequences with no dialogue, which take place in slow motion to a beautiful classical score, the trademark chaos of the clown Shakespeare party scene which Rajat Kapoor has perfected. The seamless transition between scenes and acts. A special mention should be made of the score used in the play, which was haunting, pained, cheery as and when the story demanded it.

While there are sore points, and definitely huge room for improvement, they have brought us something that is a delight to experience and will not come along too often. Don’t miss it. Once it’s done, it’s done.

‘What’s done is done’ was adapted from ‘Macbeth’ written by William Shakespeare, directed by Rajat Kapoor, and was staged at the Jamshed Bhabha theatre, NCPA, Mumbai on June 05, 2016. 

Are you gonna get that?

I wanted to take some time to write this, but it may just let the magic slip. I realize the merit of a comment which pointed out that I’m not critical enough, being content to bring out what I enjoyed about a play. But forgive me this time, dear readers, for I looked up Sarah Ruhl after I watched Dead Man’s Cell Phone a few days ago; and she turned out to be such a complete inspiration that this post may not read like a review after all.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is one of those plays where you immediately understand that it becomes more than what the play is just ‘about’. A man dies in a café, the only other patron at the café assumes ownership/possession of his phone – in a bid to keep him alive through his digital identity. Alas, her good intentions are not enough to re-jig the memories that his near and dear ones hold of him. He turns out to be a rather unapologetic straight-shooter who had some overdue divine retribution coming his way. But good or bad isn’t what makes a character interesting and he was definitely an interesting man, as our do-gooder protagonist discovers.

But first, a little bit about what goes into the making of a play. As I have tried to imbibe during my amateur attempts at theatre, it is always important to try and understand a character’s motivations, so you can convincingly essay her actions and reactions on the stage. But what of random instances of delight that occur in a somber setting? Or a stab of sudden, inexplicable depression that attacks on a perfect day of sunshine and ice-cream? We’ve all encountered within ourselves a limit to our understanding of why we sometimes do what we do, and that’s what makes irony and absurdity necessary ingredients in the recipe to a life well-lived. An actor isn’t necessarily trained to channel motivations for these moments, although I suppose, as humans we have the necessary tools to recreate the moment on stage. BUT, it’s not that I gleaned all of this from the play. Somehow, though the concept was very interesting and I could sense the levels of surrealism she was going for, at the end of the day, it remained just a silly comedy for me, entertainment for its own sake.

So Jean (Anju Alva Naik), as the keeper of Gordon (Kanchan Bhattacharya)’s virtual soul, gets herself in over her head in situations involving his mistress, his family and over the phone, even his mysterious business colleagues. We learn little about the business even when she goes to dinner at Gordon’s mother’s invitation – except for eliciting intrigued gasps when she claims to be in ‘incoming’. We later find out that incoming involves collecting salable organs and body parts from people who have no money that are dispatched to people with money and lacking such organ or body part. Such was Gordon’s business, which he elaborates upon when we get a glimpse of his life through his suave, collected self. The play takes a (more) bizarre turn when Jean discovers the truth about Gordon’s career and decides to fly to South Africa in order to donate her kidney as a sacrifice for Gordon’s sins (makes perfect sense, right? Right??). She’s attacked by Gordon’s mistress and ends up meeting Gordon for a brief time on his planet of the afterlife.

For the production design, I must sing in praise of Vivek Madan and Gautam Raja who use three strips of white paper(!) and four white boxes to wonderful effect. The same area, only with appropriate (and intelligent) changes in lighting, acts as the café, the streets of new York, the church at the memorial service, Gordon’s mother’s house, South Africa and a strange planet for the dead. It’s smart, refreshing and utterly modern. I was mesmerized by the innovative treatment of the stationery store – a place that screams quotidian and boring – which was transformed into a romantic setting with cardboard paper hanging vertically from pulleys. Fantastic. In fact, see here for a detailed exposition by Gautam Raja on the thought processes and design ideas behind the lighting.

No fucking cellphones allowed at church

No fucking cellphones allowed at church

 But you gotta check out the play to see the stationery store. Sound was not a character as such (other than in the ringing of the phone), and bolstered the design by way of city sounds and some Errol Morris.

Jean is adorable. Everytime the damn phone goes off with the Black Crowes’ Hard to Handle, when she pouts her lips for the mistress to make her up, and in the mock good-bad-ugly showdown she has her awkward but nice girl quality down pat – surely, it’s not all directed. She seems to have internalized the basic uncertainty and helplessness of someone trying to achieve good through ambiguous means. Kanchan Bhattacharya is an impressive dead man and with his posthumous monologue talking passionately about his business and lobster bisque; he manages to irk us satisfactorily as he relates to us his distaste in donating his own organs. Vandana Prabhu as Hermia had some stellar, stellar moments as the confessional drunk. Ajith Hande as Dwight was unfortunately not as fluent or ‘in the zone’ as the other actors who seemed to really inhabit this insane world. But Arundhati Raja as Mrs. Gottlieb shines through, as the mother who obviously loved Gordon and misses him, despite or perhaps, as evidenced by the inanities she keeps spouting.

I’d like to say the script is the hero of the play here but any script can only make the play skeletal unless the actors are up to putting some meat on the bones. I haven’t read the play, so I can’t comment on the nature of edits on the script, but it went smoothly for the most part, without any abrupt jumps or cuts. However, the arbitrariness and absurdity of the concepts do make you wonder how much of it is there for convenience of the plot. One notable point is when Gordon hears from Jean that his mother considers it her duty to mourn him till the day she dies, and he, overcome by emotion runs offstage. Rather out of character, I thought, for someone like Gordon especially when he knows he was vastly preferred over his poor brother, but it’s a minor gripe.

A play that spans just over an hour with so much to laugh about, learn (the belly of the tuna is the best part) and love.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone was written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Vivek Madan and performed by Jagriti in Rangashankara on November 07, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Rites and Wrongs

This review of Bali is divided into paragraphs and deals with various aspects of the play separately as I felt I could not otherwise do it justice (I would suggest you quickly follow the link above to get a basic idea of what the play was about):

The Script: The text is based on an ancient Kannada fable called Yashodharacharite and examines the status of a woman in a society that isn’t able to reconcile with her, ritual sacrifice and an interspersing of personal beliefs and relationships. By all accounts the relationship between the king and his queen is not without crises. But the fact that they are having a baby together (oh, but is it his?) signals more than one layer of complexity in their relationship, and after all, did he not change his faith to hers to show his love and respect? It is a progressive script if there ever was one, but I do have a problem with the inherent idea that ‘talwar uthana bhi himsa hota hai’, when pain, suffering and yes, violence is a fact of life, and any conception of the idyll can only allow for its minimization and not its eradication. While not all of us are even trying to be perfect, let alone achieving perfection, even a perfect paradigm cannot discount anger and its ugly children entirely. I wonder if self defense could be an acceptable exception to such a rigid philosophy.

Movement: Ms. Niranjani Iyer blew me away. At times, I can get overwhelmed by the symbolism in purely physical theatre, and I am guilty of dismissing extreme examples of such theatre because it is rather inaccessible to amateur enthusiasts, and therefore, cannot provide us the epiphanies and uplift that makes art so important. So it was wonderful to see a merging of the two modes of interpretation and expression, the textual and the physical, coming together in a cohesive and restrained manner. 9 dancers took the stage at the beginning and moved; herding and dispersing with such amazing alacrity, that the discipline that must have taken belied the spontaneity of their dance.

 Women in the Play: The hero of the play is Vaishali Chakravarthy, with blazing eyes and flowing tresses. She is as fierce in her personal philosophy as her faith is non-violent. But she is also anti-violent, in that she will stand in the way of any living sacrifice – whether for the news of her pregnancy or to make an offering to atone for her infidelity. While that is an honourable stance any way you slice it (pun unintended), she even disavows a sacrifice of a chicken made of dough (hittina hunja, the kannada title of the play is reference to this) choosing to give herself up in the process.

 Anuradha Vyas plays the role of the queen mother and I have to confess, I loved her. Regal and poised and chin impossibly high, her voice rang out as she sternly spoke her lines, unused to having anything but her way.

Two other girls make up mostly the flank of the main actors – with one petite girl portraying the remote past in the life of the queen, in one of the flashbacks.

© Actor Factor

A chorus of eavesdroppers

Dramatic Device: Ancient Greek theatre used to employ choruses which communicated to the audience what the actors could not, and may even have provided insight to the characters in the course of the play. In Bali, the chorus was essentially a living, breathing feedback machine, sometimes reacting, sometimes mocking, even echoing the deepest fears of these conflicted, tragic characters. I was amazed when in one scene they crawled on the floor like parasites, slowly pulling the king down while the Queen Mother gave him an audience, symbolizing him being consumed by his conundrum. And in a moment that was so beautiful in its simplicity, the Queen Mother was unrelenting in her decision to give sacrifice, and while the king tried to reason with her, she moved to sit on the back of his shoulders, weighing down on him and making him appear smaller and her, the ultimate conqueror. Good stuff there.

Lights:  while I can’t comment on specifics (because I’m a hack), light was used to create depth and display a royal setting while showing the palace scenes, mystery while lighting up the temple scene between the queen when she is taken by the voice of the ugly mahaut. The clever, sparing use of light in the remaining scenes as well, with appropriate filters and spots, without overdoing it was nice to see.

Sound: we all know what the sound of crickets in the night sounds like, and it is beautifully used along with very dim lights to recreate a nocturnal feeling. The sound also supplemented the chorus at times of recitation, and drumbeats herald the coming of the climax. But the best sound arguably came from on stage itself when the queen blew a conch before commencing the ritual sacrifice signaling the denouement of the performance.

The Production: Actor Factor, a delhi based theatre troupe interpreted Karnad in quite a fascinating manner providing lots of food for thought in a Q&A session which came after the show. I am always impressed when the troupe can provide an explanation and justification for what they did, because it is only when they are convinced that they can attempt to convince you.

Most of the questions dealt with directorial decisions and asked how they had interpreted the script, which were interesting, but one that struck me was how she could kill herself if she was against violence. I believe most of us are against the idea of inflicting violence because we should not presume to have such a right to cause harm on a fellow being, but suicide is amenable, according to me, to be placed within a philosophy of non-violence if, for instance, any subsequent kind of life the person may lead would be more violent to herself or the people around her.

Bali was written by Girish Karnad, directed by Aditee Biswas, movement by Niranjani Iyer, performed by Actor Factor at Rangashankara on Saturday, October 26, 2013.

Now You Say It, Now You Don’t

Bangalore is lucky to have two theatre spaces that are intimate in setting, acoustically stellar and culturally avant-garde. Rangashankara is quite well known, it’s been around for a while, but the other one, despite being a fledgling and all the way in what used to recently be a small Eurasian village settlement, is very deserving of its quickly cemented status as a vibrant and exciting space for drama in India. Jagriti is a theatre in the round with a decently large stage, and is hosting a theatre season from September to December this year.

I had decided to watch Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq over the weekend, but I neglected checking the calendar properly, turns out it was scheduled on Friday afternoon, so I spent the duration of the play in my office reviewing documents and sipping on tepid tea. To atone for this flub so typical of me, I decided to watch ‘Whatever You Say’ on Sunday, 20th October.

Not a bad idea at all! For a while it turns out, all I had watched were productions that were rather straightforward in portrayal, unabstracted and focused on highlighting the plot or the characters or the agenda. A script that manages to bend the staid concepts a little out of shape is a lot of fun to unravel.

But let’s start at the beginning. Shivani and Tom walked onto stage and read us out three poems that Shivani had penned herself, Endless, A man and a woman in the 21st Century and something else whose title I didn’t catch; well I like good poetry, and I was quite impressed and very amused. The poems set out and kept with the theme of modernity, absurdity, playing with words and meaning of life. But I did think that the first poem could have been read out / delivered better.

A thought collector inhabits the dimly lit spaces in the life of a couple [Tom Alter and Dipika Roy] whose relationship has been overwrought. They aren’t fighting, although their conversation increasingly takes on a pseudo-intellectual hue abounding in recursion and rhetoric. They don’t press the point, but I think it would be truly frightening if people have completely run out of things to say to each other and continue to spend all their time together. The couple displays an easy chemistry, able to transcend moods and Tom’s character is mildly pompous but very charmingly so and with grace, while Dipika’s alternates between being petulant, smoldering and displaying a refreshing curiosity. The thought collector only occasionally interrupts to show us the disconnect between what we’re thinking, feeling and what makes its way out of our mouths, and sometimes, just how difficult it is to find the right words. 

Image

This is where I think Shivani Tibrewala has done a great job. It is a given that a script containing dialogues about, essentially, the inexpressible would contain stilted language and lend itself to awkward delivery. She manages to keep it mostly witty and relevant with a healthy dose of the absurd. Yes, Tom and Dipika turn into pigeons and discover that birds’ brains can read each others’ thoughts. At one point they disappear from stage and reappear up in the lights area channeling Heckle and Jeckle on a wire. While I wasn’t a big fan of the pigeon act [only because they themselves didn’t seem convinced enough that they were pigeons], the underlying message was simple enough to glean.  

One can tell this isn’t a play where the actors strictly adhere to the script, though I might be wrong, and they may just be doing a great job of keeping it spontaneous. But it is doubtless a play that evolves in more ways than one, with each rendition, perhaps every rehearsal. It might mean different things to me if I watch it again, and it’ll mean something different and unique to you. One thing for sure however, is that it will perch on your head and peck at your thoughts like a little stoolpigeon.

‘Whatever You Say’ was written and directed by Shivani Tibrewala and produced by No License Yet Productions. It will continue to run in Jagriti until Sunday, October 27, 2013.

Only Published Opinion

There usually stands a bronze statue of Winston Churchill in the Parliament Square in London, but over the weekend we spotted it around MLR Convention Center in Bangalore looking to shed a bit of light on the life of the man embodying the statue.

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

The Edinburgh Fringe theater festival has given us Pip Utton, a former jeweler, who adopts the erect stance, formal manner and the striking demeanor of the great British wartime prime minister in the play, Churchill, and takes us through his memories while indulging in his passion for whisky, cigars and listening to himself speak.

The stage is set barely, with a writing desk in the center of the room and atop it a lamp, a globe, some papers and a cigar. A coat rack stands at an angle nearby, and a tin box sits awkwardly on the floor downstage. On stage right is the plinth upon which the statue stands.

Churchill is dressed in a smart suit, wearing a hat and carrying a walking stick. Having obtained balcony seats, I can’t see the expressions very well beneath the hat, but his voice does a lot of the acting. His accent is delicious and the tone sufficiently egoistic and supercilious. Thrice he breaks the fourth wall, two times beckoning a suited chap to come up on stage and help him off and on the plinth and sharply silenced the crowd in character when the audience broke into inexplicable applause saying one shouldn’t applaud servants. Taking digs at the audience, socialists, Nancy Astor and the French, we were kept in splits at his unrelenting sarcasm (when he spoke of politics “I hope you don’t have to suffer a coalition government” – ouch) peppered with some very charming moments (when he spoke of his wife, his family and his love for champagne).

The lights were sparingly played around with; the table lamp lit up the central area and the stage lights provided general illumination converging into a spotlight on the man when he reprised a few lines from his famous speech exhorting the values of a democracy and asking America to join the war. The sound of military marching music during the speech drowned out a bit of his voice, despite Pip using a microphone in a relatively small convention hall.

The content of the entire show was terrifically witty, every line a punch line, with anecdotes and biography forming the major chunk of the material. He makes a couple of references to Bangalore (not sure whether true or artistic license) but perhaps he could’ve worked in some more Indian context for this show given Churchill’s particular contempt for India and ruthlessness in relation to the Indian people. Considering the complexity of a character come to life from the cold, looking back on it and talking to the audience in the same vein, it may be too much to ask that he also take us back into his world and let us become a fly on the wall for a few minutes (other than during the speech), observing him in a historical setting, in his natural environment. But especially in a solo act, a spell of acting like that could have a transformative effect. Otherwise, it seems any snide Brit chap may puff on a cigar and relate the same stories we heard, and we wouldn’t notice the difference. As Churchill says in the context of his military decisions, there is a time to stop talking, a time for action.

How did I end up here?

A theater review blog which will try to get a dialogue going about the meaning of acting, viscerality, production values, absurdity, scripts and the unscripted. I have an abiding interest in theater, am a ravenous consumer of the performing arts and I love the feeling of stepping on to an empty stage, simply dancing with potential energy.

This blog, I would like, to serve as a chronicle of plays I have seen, any trajectory of my sense of observation that I may distill from it. I would be stoked if readers find matters of interest as I try to understand for myself the range of reality and artistry that theatre embraces, why it is still relevant in this day and age, but most of all in revelling in its capacity to reflect humanity in an extremely real yet highly abstracted form. 

I have had some experience as an actor, but this is no way to be presumed as professional criticism. 

Feel free to disagree with my opinions, inform as response to my ignorance but do respect that this is my space, and as we say in theatre, we must occupy and own our space.

“The tragic night is a condition of life, a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or such actions.”

From Arthur Miller’s Tragedy and the Common Man.