Fury, frustration and family heirloom
October 3, 2018
When the curtain opens, there is a splendid disarray of furniture, bedsteads, upholstery, almirahs and what not, lying in decrepitude for last thirty years or so, when the father died in relative penury. In this milieu, gradually gathers a motley crowd, each with his or her own agenda. First to arrive is a police sergeant, approaching his fiftieth birthday and heading for retirement. Although a bright student, he had given up going to college to support his father and had often gone through very hard days to eke out an existence, often unable to eat two square meals a day. After 30 years, he has returned to sell his parents' estate and looks forward to coming to examine the root causes as to why he had to put up with his life-long sacrifice. His wife, a fairly self-effacing house-maker, is still frustrated why her husband had to be so supportive of his self-willed father and would not mind seeing the end of their lowly standard of life. Then there is the elder brother, a successful doctor, who deserted the family quite early in life in quest of greener pastures and never bothered to support the parents thereafter -- to whom the younger sibling had not spoken in years. Finally, there is the wily antique dealer, an octogenarian, who has come to bid for the property in his own crafty terms.
In this mise-en-scene, Arthur Miller (1915-2005) - the celebrated American playwright, essayist, and among the most prominent figures in the 20th-century Western theatre - places the characters of his famous 1968 play, The Price, to work out, like pawns on a chess board, virtually a 'psychological warfare'. Revived four times as a runaway Broadway hit (with nearly 500 performances), the play is a riveting narrative of a family dynamics, where the price of furniture somehow outweighs the price of one's decisions. The canny auctioneer's negotiations at rock-bottom level set the scene with an unwary Police Sergeant almost agreeing to anything, with some inevitable periodic swings in the moods of negotiation. The Sergeant and his ever-capitulating wife provide a backdrop. Once the flashy elder brother arrives, the play turns to look back intensely at the unspoken and unexplored family annals, layer by layer, with the image of a long dead father, overly awestruck by the successful elder son and virtually indifferent to the downplayed younger one, becomes clearer and clearer. The offer of an unexpected and deeply suspected succour follows from the elder to the younger sibling, to be summarily rejected by the latter. The auctioneer is now only an existential creature of the circumstances, and gets away with the booty.
Mulyo (price) presented on September 2 by Ballygunj Bratyajan in Kolkata, under the baton of the young stalwart Debashis, is a faithful recreation of the Miller original by the late Asit Mukherjee. The intensely dramatic course of actions is very well played out, thanks to a most cohesive teamwork. The verbal duel between Debshankar Halder and Bratya Basu as the two quarrelling siblings sitting at two ends of the proscenium is a treat to watch. Indeed, the placing throughout of the dramatis personae "reconciling" or "repelling" each other is cleverly worked out like a symphony, on the wings of point and counterpoint. Rajat Ganguly as the recriminating furniture dealer - now persuasive and now non-committal or even withdrawing - is excellent. Senjuti Mukherjee, the long-suffering wife, is well-enacted, too, especially as this critic fondly remembers her as the talented daughter of the incomparable Asit Mukherjee, the original Sargeant, as also the playwright of Neelam, Neelam, the script presented here as Mulyo.
After witnessing the play, one realises how universally valid its premises are even today - exactly half century after it was penned and enacted in Broadway - and how apt would seem Miller's oft-quoted quips: Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets or Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.
A certain evil
There's Always a Price Tag is about a small time freelance writerGlyn Nash, who rescues a drunken billionaire film director Dester from being run over, and soon gets appointed by the latter as his personal assistant and driver at his Hollywood residence, much against the wishes of Dester's glamorous, but otherwise shady wife, Helen Dester. In the original novel, Glyn sees the employment as an opportunity to become rich and famous, not knowing what is in store for him. Slowly, he discovers that Dester is financially broke, with all his property already under a terminal mortgage. Glyn was conspiring with Helen on how to collect the booty, but Dester suddenly commits suicide - in the presence of both— after announcing that they would have to prove this to be an actual murder, in order to get enriched by his very large insurance amount. This is a diabolical situation because of the certainty of being implicated, since he had craftily kept his will away with a friendly insurance agent who would see through any game to get the policy money.
Glyn and Helen try first, to tell the public that Dester has gone abroad and, later, put his plastic-wrapped body into a freezer. A new elaborate plot is now hatched to pretend that Dester is going to a sanatorium with Helen and, on the way, is kidnapped for ransom while an injured Helen is strapped up within the car. But these ideas backfire for Glyn when, before tying Helen, he had beaten her badly to make her appear injured and, in the process, accidentally killed her. Again, in the original, Nash discovers Dester's will and finds to his amazement and shock, that Dester had left everything in his name, including the insurance money. This makes things difficult as, if the police do find it, it would appear that Nash had committed both the murders to grab the money. Nash now tries to hide the will and cover things up by making it appear that Dester murdered his wife and then committed suicide. After some more twist by faking a suicide with Dester's frozen body, Nash tries to escape from the city but the police soon get the wind of what Glyn has been up to, chases him and he is soon nabbed.
Bajimaat, the first ever Bengali version of this celebrated work as a play, was premiered on August 27 by Natakwala Kolkata, as adapted and directed by Shyamal Kumar Chakrabarty. While the fluidity of the original story was very smoothly maintained, there were three major changes made from Chase. First, the adulterous wife was seen here involved with the solicitor. Second, there was no faking by the driver of the suicide. Third, thanks to the latter's skilled plotting, he emerged victorious at the end, implicating the solicitor for the imagined "murder" and even donated the entire insurance money to building a hospital, as originally sought by the billionaire - seen as an NRI here and not a film tycoon. In the process, the story gains great momentum and both the billionaire (Babu Dutta Roy) and solicitor (Shyamal Kumar Chakrabarty) emerge as very substantial actors.
But the play firmly belongs to Banku (Goutam Halder), the driver, who puts up a text book image of a simpleton who has one sterling faculty: serendipity, by which he overcomes every adversity. He is also not brow-beaten easily by the high and mighty. Finally, he proves himself to be above avarice by donating away the money to charity. In the entire play, Goutam uses excellent physical acting and superb body language, proving himself to be an actor's actor and carrying the day. Kudos to him!
On the need for modifying the original text of Chase, the director comments, "We wanted to present an exciting, suspense thriller, based on mind game, conflict of conscience, and intellectually punched wits and their consequences. We observe such situations regularly around us in different shapes, atmosphere and attitude, yet it is very harmful to our society, if we do not admit. If anyone gets stuck in an ulterior greed - like a bird's claw stuck in a frame - he will be trapped forever!" The mise-en-scene is well handled. In the all-round professional acting, only the erring wife alone seems to be a trifle high-pitched. Highly recommended!
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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