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Bland and pedantic



DAMP SQUIB A scene from Royal Shakespeare Company's performance of the Bard's highly revered play King Lear. Vijjay Nair's adaptation of the play, turned out to be a disappointment PHOTO: AFP

Watching the three Vijjay Nair plays which were staged at the Rangashankara last week was like attending a master-class on theatre, but for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, from lacklustre, watery writing to indifferent direction to atrocious acting, the plays could teach everything one might ever hope to learn about what not to do with, or to, the dramatic medium.

In retrospect, the Abhishek Majumdar-directed Weeds, the first of the three to be staged, turned out to be the best of the lot. Though not a brilliant, or even a very good piece of playwriting, it nonetheless sports a few moments of dramatic intensity. The play opens in the aftermath of 9/11, when Rafiq, a NYC based Bangladeshi lecturer of drama, tries to resurrect his relationship with Teertha Dasgupta, a former stage actress whom he'd met and fallen in love with in Calcutta in1996. The play unfolds through the epistolary exchange between Rafiq and Teertha, now based in Kodaikanal, with "flashbacks" to the events of 1996, which culminated in tragedy. The play tries to examine two parallel themes — the demonisation of Islam in the wake of 9/11 and the destruction of old ethos and values by diabolic new influences — the one symbolised in the person of Sujoy Dasgupta, Teertha's grandfather and one time czar of the Calcutta stage now battling senescence, the other in the person of Chaddha, the trickster who cons Dasgupta's self-obsessed grandson Taposh into burning down Saptoporni, the auditorium which was Dasgupta's life and soul, thus effectively destroying him. The first theme remains largely unexplored, but the second is presented interestingly, though one must say the playwright has failed in his characterisation of Taposh and Tamoshi. As for the execution, the idea of using the Rangashankara auditorium as part of the performance space was interesting, but having to follow the actors moving about in the entire auditorium was rather disorienting for the audience. The performances were not spectacular, but Nilanjan Choudhary as Sujoy Dasgupta was quite impressive, as was Kaushik Mukherjee as Suleiman, the old family retainer who perishes in the Saptoporni fire. Sumit Guha as the crafty Chaddha was more comical than menacing. Abhishek Majumdar and Sambrita Basu as Rafiq and Teertha were rather flat, and occasionally fumbled over words. Nikhila Mahadevan and Vincent Chackochan V. as Tamoshi and Taposh were below par, and the latter has severe problems with his diction and delivery that he must rectify.

Shut The Door, the second play, directed by Mr. Nair himself, turned out to be a disaster. Everything about the play, starting from the watery script to the amateurish acting to the vapid direction to the rather purposeless lighting design, was so cringe inducing, that one sees no point in dwelling on any single aspect of it. In a nutshell though, four moronic post-teens are stranded indoors when torrential rains cancel a Madonna concert. Enter an acid-sniffing ghost, Anand, who prefers to be called Andy and coaxes out their dark and buried secrets (incest, homosexuality, voyeurism), thus helping them to come to grips with their past. Egregious from the beginning to the end, this cannot possibly be called serious theatre.

The high point of the festival, Raja Lahiri, Mr. Nair's adaptation of King Lear, also turned out to be a disappointment, and annoying because of it's superficial rendering of one of the most revered of dramatic texts. The usually admirable Pritam Koilpillai also turns in a strangely listless directorial performance. One is not against innovation in the theatrical craft, and cinematic visuals can of course be used in theatre, but in the rare case where they are completely warranted. Here, cinematic sequences were used where, presumably, a paucity of dramatic imagination failed to carry the story forward through on-stage actions. Moreover, the filmed "interviews" with the actors, purporting to educate the audience about the roles they essayed, were completely gratuitous. The muse of theatre is infinitely accommodating, but even she might balk if such gross liberties are taken with her. For the record, Lear is here transformed to Raja Lahiri, a promiscuous software baron. The other characters undergo similar transformations, Goneril and Regan becoming Gitanjali and Ranjana, their husbands, Albany and Cornwall, become Deb and Aditya, Cordelia undergoes a gender transformation to become Kushan, Lahiri's gay son, aspiring to be a fashion designer (cliché, anyone?) Gloucester is the paedophile Harish, Kent becomes his much-maligned secretary Usha, and Edmund becomes Aman, Harish's bastard son. The story is too well known to be told here, but suffice it to say that in Mr. Nair's re-telling, it becomes a sordid saga of pettiness that appeared, as a friend put it, more like a dramatisation of "Socialite Evenings" than King Lear. As far as the acting is concerned, Abhishek Majumdar turned in a more than creditable performance, portraying his character's casual, pathological sadism with élan. Sanjeev Iyer as Vivek (the fool in the original) had an engaging monologue. The rest of the cast vacillated between boring to incompetent acting — Shaizia Jifri with her high-pitched, unsuccessful imitation of an English accent being a case in point for the former, and the completely stiff Pooja Hegde, of the latter. Ajith Hande was also good in patches. Balaji Manohar needs to learn to speak English properly before essaying a role, even a modified one, like King Lear.

All in all, a disappointing experience, trivialising the theatrical form, and one that will not do the cause of serious experimentation no good.

ARKA MUKHOPADHYAY

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