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Real and the Surreal: 8th Theatre Olympics, Part II
Photos courtesy: NSD & theatre groups

March 28, 2018

Two endearing take-offs on Shakespeare, one delightful spoof on Jules Verne and one hard core realisation of African reality constituted a substantive spread of the ongoing 8th Theatre Olympics panorama.

Around the World in 80 Boxes

Around the World in 80 Boxes presented on March 8 by Markeline Group from Spain, looked askance at the great adventure-litterateur Jules Verne, who had taken his readers in a perilous trip in Around the World in 80 Days. Based on this literary reference point, the dramatis personae here are three working hands who live a routine life as laborers in a warehouse. Occasionally, trucks bring boxes and on other occasions, they have to load boxes onto other trucks. But, one day, perhaps because the boredom of their routine existence also has a limit, something arises among them that distinguishes a person from a machine, namely, the capability to play-and-create. Never leaving the warehouse, the characters of the story seem to travel around the world - sailing by balloons, floating on imaginary sea by ship and mounting illusive desert camels - - but always remaining stuck with their 80 boxes and never uttering a word!

A collaborating effort directorially, the play has a clear ethos and explains, "The careful visual aspect and gestures of the actors, the investigation that goes into items and language, are all elements that belong to our way of working. We also have a strong commitment to original creations and contemporaneity. We create stories that engage the world and the time we live in." In their performance, they provide a critical view of today and of the past, spinning stories where the audience can contemplate their own conflicts and contradictions depicted in a beautiful and intelligent manner. These are also stories that the audience builds based on suggestions, at times minimal, universal, emotional, but always poetic. As the actors build situations, they never sacrifice the intuitive tools of free creation and thus, being consistent with this essence and exigency, they break old moulds and explore new scenic territories and languages. On the whole, it is an absolutely delightful experience!

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet presented on March 10 by Mukul & Ghetto Tigers from the UK, did not deviate from the Bard's narrative of the ancient family feud in Verona and the star crossed lovers who fell as its victims. Romeo & Juliet, as one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, has been among his most loved plays. The passionate young lovers who defy the ancient conflict between their families have their counterparts in each community having its own Romeo and Juliet story to tell. Weaving together Shakespeare's verse and Bengali poetry, this production was a dynamic cross-cultural performance made for modern times.
In the play directed by Mukul Ahmed, a multi-national cast used Pala Gaan - - a Bengali theatre style which combines music, dance and storytelling - - to re-invent the classic. Everyone played multiple characters to enliven the story. In particular, Romeo, Lady Capulet, Abraham and Narrator: Delwar Hossain Dilu was superb in his physical acting and highly stylised impersonations, ably matched by the British actress Suzanne Kendall as Juliet and Narrator.

Compassion, the History of the Machine Gun

Compassion, the History of the Machine Gun presented on March 13 by Schaulbuhne Theatre from Germany, went to the other extreme of realistic theatre. It was, out and out, a "docu-drama", portraying an unsentimental narrative of the human catastrophe - created entirely by human machinations - in this very century in front of our eyes. Directed by Milo Rau, the play at one level depicts the ethnic cleansing going on in Rwanda between the two racial minorities, to the point of one community eliminating the other in no-holds-barred armed confrontation.

At another level, Rau and his team journey to the political hot spots of our time: the Mediterranean routes of refugees from the Middle East and the Congolese civil war zones. The utterly realistic double monologue - - based on interviews with NGO workers, clerics and war victims in Africa and Europe - - deliberately ventures into contradictory terrain: how do we endure the misery of others and why do we watch it? Why does one dead person at the gates of Europe outweigh a thousand dead people in the Congolese civil war zones? Compassion, the History of the Machine Gun not only contemplates the limits of our compassion but also on the limits of European humanism, comparable only to the terrible Holocaust of the Second World War and the narrative here - in French and German - is an exorcism of that vast devastation in human history.

Pyramus and Thisby

Pyramus and Thisby
presented on March 13 by Centrestage Productions, happened to be, in hilarious contrast, a spoof on Shakespeare's comedy. It was bold, daring and even a little risqué - - so much so that it might even make one a little nervous! Directed by Jehan Aloysius, this riotous local adaptation from A Midsummer Night's Dream would make one recall its "play within a play" which is generally passed over as comic relief. The plot centers on a group of somewhat dubious artisans rehearsing a play titled 'Pyramus and Thisby' in the forest. Meanwhile, a battle rages between the Fairy King and Fairy Queen over a mystical Indian boy with dire consequences for Bottom, the weaver and one of the (more ingratiating) artisans, who becomes the victim of a magical transformation at the hands of the mischievous spirit 'Puck' leading to chaos in the human world. Meanwhile, 'Bottom', the weaver, becomes the unwitting victim of a magical transformation which leads him into the arms of the mesmerized Fairy Queen. In all this mayhem, the artisans wonder if they will ever be able to stage their tragic-comedy 'Pyramus and Thisby'!

In this version - - set in low country Sri Lanka in the early 1900s - - Pyramus interweaves Shakespeare's text with low country mask theatre such as Kolam and Thovil, acrobatics and fusion dance. Even without the masks and full costume, one could feel the raw intensity of the performers. The play does transport one back to the dark and gritty woods - - one might imagine Shakespeare intended - - before successive adaptations 'cleaned up' the fairy forest. Pyramus and Thisby is a magical blend of Shakespeare's verse, exciting dance and music boasting of a skilled cast of prominent English theatre personalities as well as professional dancers, acrobats and musicians from Sri Lanka. Aloysius, the show's creator states: "The first few runs of Pyramus and Thisby were a phenomenal success. The cast had worked hard through months of grueling pre-work and rehearsals devising the show at workshops, while also learning acrobatics and various styles of Eastern dance. It was humbling that the audiences were unanimous in their appreciation of the work that had gone into the show."

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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