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With a touch of finesse

A novel attempt that made an impact... "Nallaval". — Pic. by K.Gajendran.

"NALLAVAL", THE Tamil adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's ``The Good Woman of Setzuan", presented by the Max Mueller Bhavan and the Koothu-p-pattarai repertory had a lot going for it. Fine sets (Ranjan De and Palani) to begin with. Hand woven mats making up the interiors and facade of houses in Setzuan. Cleverly conceived costumes. The off white clothes for the men and the dresses for the women designed by Rukmini Krishnan managed to create the right touch for a play that had been deftly moved from one milieu to another. The music by Venkat Raman was eloquent and unmuffled. The lights (C. Ravindran) that picked up the right moments astutely and embraced the characters in a sharp yet mellow glow. And a dedicated director (Nelia Veksel) who had put the actors through their paces thoroughly and who knew the text like the back of her hand.

With all these inputs the result was quite dazzling. It was a production such as the Tamil theatre scene has seldom seen. Never perhaps in a local production have such sophisticated effects been witnessed. Even for those tired of seeing Brecht transported to a Tamil setting, there was an element of novelty. The names and locale were German, the dialogue Tamil, but there was an instant understanding. Right from scene one where the gods come down to earth looking for lodgings with one good person who can tilt the balance in mankind's favour. To the Indian psyche, there was a familiarity in seeing the gods descend from the heavens and sweat it out on their search. And when there are three in number, there is an instant rapport.

Wang, the water seller's false measure, so reminiscent of the traditional Indian milkman's tampering with the volume, the manner in which the poor and wretched arrive in prostitute-turned entrepreneur Shen Teh's small tobacco shop and scrounge on her, the way the woman is exploited by them and her lover, and the problems that pile up — all had a bearing in a country where the poor, and women are buffeted by adversity and have to cleverly evolve ways to keep their heads above water and be one step ahead.

Kalai Rani had a double workload but she carried it off brilliantly. Her Shen Teh (the heroine) and Shui Ta (her `cousin') were two separate and distinct characters — one, generous, warm and yielding and the other, matter-of-fact, shrewd and enterprising. The balance despite the speech on motherhood was in Shui Ta's favour.

Whatever be the director's efforts to project the Good Woman strongly, Shui Ta overshadowed his `sister'.

Others who stood out in the performance were Chandra who as widow Shin was sharp and clever, Neha who was stunning as the landlady Mi Tzu. Murugan (the water seller Wang) and Jayakumar as the unscrupulous unemployed pilot to whom Sheh Teh loses her heart, gave adequate support. There were unusual stylistic devices, such as the entry and gait of each character which acted as a subtext, revealing his or her psyche, and the demeanour of the gods (Bhaskar, Palani and Vinayagam) who moved in perfect synchronisation sharing a coat or maintaining a precarious balance on wooden rollers. The translation by G.Krishnamurthy had been worked on to provide a good colloquial flavour.

But there was a dated feel about the story. For the Indians, too often on celluloid and stage have the gods come down and what might have seemed fresh for Germans in the first half of the last century is far from so in 2001 in urban India.

The play was a thoroughly polished piece. Even the sets were changed with perfect coordination. Yet there was a hiatus in the actors' response to it, and a feeling that the soul was missing. Unavoidable perhaps when a play is yanked from its roots and transplanted on an alien ground.

When Brecht is not so popular even in the West, one is at a loss to understand why Tamil theatre groups turn to him again and again. But ``Nallaval'' proved that if pains are taken to present a production taking all its aspects into consideration, audiences will go to the theatre. As they did on all four days of the performance of ``Nallaval" recently, at the Dr.MGR Janaki College for Women.


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