2" - A Neil Simon play staged by the theatre group EVAM
January 25, 2006
EVAM's plays fill me with hope and despair at the same time; hope because more and more young people are being inducted into the group and work willingly as the front office/usher/backstage crew, newer and newer audiences watch the plays and there is no dearth of sponsors. While the old sponsors continue to support, new sponsors are sought and come forth willingly to support. This is a new phenomenon in Chennai's English Theatre scenario. Also, for every show the hall is invariably full and tickets are oversold. This again is a rare phenomenon in the English Theatre scene of Chennai. Even the audience quotient seems to be growing and more varied. New faces, new age groups, new approaches... altogether Evam seems to be a pulsating and energetic group. They are constantly working out marketing techniques with new groups of people.
However, the same energy and imagination is not seen in their productions. In fact, there seems to be a serious lack in directorial inputs. I tried to point this out to Karthik Kumar, one of the founders of the Evam group. Karthik along with Sunil act as the producers, fund raisers, actors and directors. This is an onerous task even for the most energetic and seasoned theatre aficionados. Karthik has his own reasons for not seeking outside help in the matter of direction. He believes that there should be a project which is interesting and satisfying to the external director as well as the group. Another problem faced by Karthik in any kind of collaboration with other theatre groups is that their work ethic does not seem to have any common ground with that of Evam's. Evam believes in at least eight to ten shows of a production with a total audience range of three thousand people. He also asserts that while he and Sunil may not be seasoned directors at present, they would in course of time, may be in ten years, gain the knowledge and experience required to be a seasoned director. So, he says that till the group gains a more solid grounding and has a mutually agreeable project, this problem of an outside director cannot be effectively tackled.
But, the net result is that the plays produced by Evam do not rise beyond a certain level of artistic merit and that is sad, because a group which has been able to overcome the infra-structural problems concerning money, sponsorship, space etc by using imagination and communication capabilities seem to be lacking when it comes to the artistic merit of the plays that they produce. The group will have to sort out this problem eventually if they have to last long and earn permanent recognition in the theatre world of Chennai or even beyond Chennai purely on the basis of merit. Karthik is optimistic that this will be done in the course of time. Meanwhile, shouldn't some basic norms of acting quality be maintained? After all for good actors like T M Karthik, Karthik Kumar, and Sunil whose acting capabilities are high, it should not be difficult to impart the same to other aspirant actors and actresses. I also wonder, shouldn't the sponsors and the audience also insist on a certain level of artistic merit? This would automatically improve Evam's standards, because they cannot achieve anything without the sponsors or the audience. Would it not be a service to the theatre world itself, shifting the emphasis from mere entertainment to real artistic expression? Or are the sponsors indirectly endorsing that artistic merit cannot go hand in hand with commercial success?
Now coming to the play "Chapter 2" itself, the selection of the play poses a great deal of ideological problems for me. Any group which still believes in producing plays written by English or American authors have only very limited relevance in the present Indian scenario. There is a good and growing volume of English plays by Indian authors which would look more credible in an Indian scenario. They would be better related to Indian reality also. So, the group cannot complain about lack of performance-worthy Indian plays. Also, any group which does not move into eventually writing their own plays and producing them will be fulfilling only a limited theatre function. It would not be tapping into the potential of the local talent in script writing. Eventually, a meaningful theatre movement hinges on paying more attention to these facets. Neil Simon does not fall under any of the above mentioned categories. This is not to say that Neil Simon is not a great playwright. He is a great comedy theatre writer. His lines are fantastic with their own rhythm and inner meanings. But any group which pays attention only to his quirky, funny lines in a very peripheral manner would not be able to capture the irony and pathos imbedded in those lines.
Evam's problem with this production was that they caught on very well to the laugh-lines, but did not bother to look beyond that laughter and look deep into the irony or pathos underlying the lines. This is why the first half of the play met with continuous laughs and claps while the second half which is more serious and thought provoking had to confront bored yawns and departure of people from the hall. Michael Muthu's sets cluttered the stage and made movements of actors restricted and constrained. Actors were literally pussyfooting so that they would not topple the furniture or artifacts on the set. For whatever reason, the directors and the set director chose to have a realistic set. This again is a very traditional approach to Neil Simon plays and did not in any way enhance the overall production. They could have been more daring and tried minimalised and more abstract sets. Neil Simon himself would have probably appreciated it more - freeing his play from the seen and unseen fetters of traditional English Theatre etiquette. The idea of having both the apartment spaces of the main protagonists on two sides of the stage and lighting only the one where the scene took place was rather good. The lighting on the whole, was fairly good.
However, it was the acting which proved to be very rudimental and amateurish. Some of the fundamental principles of acting were overlooked or were totally missing - such as the pacing of the lines, the projection of voices, not dropping lines or line endings indiscreetly, the avoidance of real life mannerisms while acting, the induction of stylization and abstraction in enunciation of words and movements, the attention to details such as closing the wine bottle after using it. Expression of emotions was also at a very elementary level, though the first meeting of George and Jenny had its own untutored innocence and poignancy. It was when the tempo shifted to a more serious one that the actors failed to emote with feeling and talent and create an emotional response from the audience. The bedroom scene, which is rather explicit, would have been more meaningful if the momentary passion and angst was conveyed in a definite manner. It lacked conviction and emotional depth.
I do belong to the "Old School" of critics who believe that in theatre there is no substitute for good acting. Sophisticated sets, attractive costumes, appealing music - these and other accessories take only second place to acting in theatre. Give the stage back to actors is what I always state in my writings. This has great relevance in a country like India where theatre depends on corporate or other sponsorships for staging a play. If one does not have to spend so much on sets and lights or even music recording, the begging bowl situation can be avoided; the demands and the pressures from the corporate sponsors about the artistic substance and quality also can be avoided. But, in order to transform theatre and sustain itself on acting and imaginative sets and lights, the actors and the director will have to exert themselves and observe greater rigour and diligence.
Boys and girls
will aspire to play a great role in the theatre scene. I miss Bhagirathi
Narayanan, who with her inimitable acting and striking stage presence used
to elevate theatre, especially English Theatre from the morass it has fallen
into and offer us glimpses of superior acting skills.
Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject "Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala". She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic and regular contributor to narthaki.com