sunshine follows the rain: A play directed by Rajiv Krishnan
July 17, 2006
An empty stage. The curtains remain drawn. The stage, dimly lit. A few moments of profound silence. The audience waits with bated breath and hushed whispers. The director of the play, Rajiv Krishnan, enters, thanks the audience, thanks the sponsors, gently reminds the audience that since this play belonged to an age when cell phones were not in vogue, would the viewers mind switching them off, or even better, forget that they ever existed. Twitters from a self-conscious audience, who are not completely convinced of the need to completely switch off the cell phones, those people to whom cell phones are the latest electronic toys to which they are deeply attached.
The director leaves and once again the stage is empty. The silence prevails. The stage lights are still dim. The house lights are switched off. There is an air of anticipation in the audience. The low strains of music are heard as though they were coming from another world. Slowly the music gathers momentum, during which two men wearing overcoats walk in pushing on to the stage a wooden box on wheels. They place it in the background, turn and stand still with their backs to the audience, like two sentries or coffin guards. The lid of the box is slowly lifted from inside and out pops another man who is similarly attired. He looks around, smiles and slowly steps out of the box. The other two men turn around help him to take off his overcoat. He moves forward, introduces himself as the narrator of the play and gives the background, salient features and the synopsis of the play. The other two also join him in this narration. While the main narrator's narration is going on, the two men other than the narrator take out various props from the magical box and start setting up the stage. The props are not the usual, fully finished props, but only frames, pieces of mat, parts of stands, which are used to create outlines of furniture and other accessories that form part of a room inside a house. The narrator tells us that instead of making illusion out of reality, he is trying to deal with reality through illusion. As it is a memory play, the lights would remain dim and the settings unreal.
Already, the magic of theater is unveiled and captures the imagination of the audience. Slowly the plot unveils not in a traditional narrative way, but through fragmentation, framing and fragile imaging. By and by, the audience is introduced to the special devices, the emotional drama and the black humour and pathos of the theme. The play did not have an interval and moved uninterrupted for two hours. But, without obviously demanding it, the actors trained efficiently by the director were able to captivate the Audience, who sat mesmerized through the entire duration of the play. This does not usually happen in the Chennai theatre scene. We, the audience, laugh dutifully at the meaningless and superficial jokes that the theatre groups arrange for us. We do not get up and go off, even when we are bored and tired, not because we are glued to our seats by the brilliance of the acting or other elements of theatre, but because of the compulsions of the training dinned into us painfully and laboriously by our elders from childhood onwards towards any expression of art. We even pretend that we are not intelligent enough to recognize the flaws and foibles in the script, acting, stagecraft, music or lighting. In other words, protest does not come to us easily even when there are strong compulsions to do that. But, this time the director did not subject us to this drama in hypocrisy that we practice day in and day out; instead, he won our hearts, minds and admiration by the very integrity of the performance that he and his actors exposed before us.
Here was a play which is truly experimental in nature and offers glimpses of an alternate theatre without any hangover from the so-called established theatre norms, daring to use seemingly unworkable theatre devices. This review is an examination of why this play directed by Rajiv Krishnan, is considered unusual and truly experimental in matters of concept as well as performance, theatre devices as well as emotional expression.
First of all, I have to remind my readers that Rajiv Krishnan had never claimed that he was directing a version of Tennessee William's "The Glass Menagerie." All he announced was that he had been inspired by this play. So, while we are watching this play, we should not make comparisons with the original and bring out arguments such as "But, in the original Laura was the focus, whereas in this production, Laura has been reduced to nothing." Also, when he mentioned that he saw certain parallels to the situation faced by the Anglo Indian community of India, he did not preclude it to being only related to the said community, thus excluding it from being directly related to "a universal situation." Relating it to the Anglo Indian community's experience has been only a framework or window to peep through and get a glimpse of the universal experience. If he did highlight the Anglo Indian community and their innumerable achievements and offered a tribute to them through the other activities connected with this event such as the photo exhibition, readings, painting exhibition, film shows, jazz show etc, it is not to gain "brownie points" with regard to the concept, quality and theatrical veracity of the play thus softening the audience or the critics to giving good reviews. Nor have these activities any direct bearing to the content or quality of the play.
The play stands on its own and should be assessed on its own merits and demerits and not on the basis of the connected events. If the real problems of the present day or the past Anglo Indian community or even the historical context of the presence, growth and development of an "Anglo-Indian community" in India have not been adequately reflected in the play, I would have to remind my readers that it is only a play and not a historical document, and it only claims to show a "slice of life" and not the entire gamut of experiences spanning more than one hundred years. Besides all this, I would humbly remind my readers that it is Rajiv Krishnan's interpretation of a play for which a script has been prepared by him jointly with Harry Maclure of Anglos in the Wind and if all these other ideas emanating from viewers and critics have to be included in the play, it would have to be another script and another play. Rajiv Krishnan is the auteur of this play and it is only fair that he be criticized for what he has done and not for what he could have done.
What are the plus points or the most original aspects of this play? First and foremost he (Rajiv) has been able to assemble a group of fine committed actors, pay utmost respect to the idea that acting and the fact that actors, are the most important aspects in a theatre production. His casting has been superb so much so that most of the actors seem to be suited for the roles they were enacting. He has given them rigorous training, which is visible in the actors' body language, voice projection and emoting. But, the remarkable aspects of the style of acting adopted by the actors are the retention of spontaneity without vulgarizing or trivializing the act and the on the spot improvisations by them without upsetting the structure or coherence of the play. Many a time the actors were able to rise above the mere technical requirements of good acting and infuse a certain indefinable and winsome quality to their acting that went into the realms of spiritual and emotional excellence. True, all actors were not of the same caliber. But, since when have we started demanding standardized, robot-like sameness in all actors in a play? Needless to say that Kaveri Lalchand, Asim Sharma and Malavika stood out with their superior acting skills and their complete transformation into the characters they portrayed. The others such as Rashmi, Iswar and Yog also exhibited fine pieces of acting. Madhavi, Dayal and Anshumani could have been less stiff and more in tune with their characters. But, on the whole there are two qualities which I would attribute to all the actors - agility and abandonment. It was refreshing to watch these two qualities at play.
The next positive aspect which comes to mind is the music. There was a live band sitting on the aisles and playing the instruments throughout the play. This music as the narrator explained in the beginning was an essential part of a "memory play." The music created the mood; the music meandered or rose to a crescendo as the situation demanded. The music had a path of its own which it followed assiduously and at the same time complemented and blended with the requirements of the script and acting. I have seen music used as an appendage to give glamour to the play; I have also seen music which stands apart from the script and the acting; I have again seen music which overwhelms and strangles the script. But, this is one occasion when music flowed without intruding, but complementing and supplementing the content and intent of the play.
Another appealing aspect of the play is its seamless flow. There was fragmentation, used as a deliberate device by two or three actors doing the same role, there were movements and voices which were totally chaotic and anarchic. But, these were all done deliberately to add to the suspense, the ups and downs in the flow of the play. Never did the spectators feel that the action was unreasonably loud or the movements were not well planned and orchestrated. In other words, wherever madness or chaos was introduced, it was deliberate and according to plan. This is not very easy to achieve. The entire structure of the play was very cinematic and reminded me of the montage theories of Eisenstein. It was not at all a case of emotion captured in tranquility. On the contrary it was a case of emotion culled out of extreme violent and no holds barred theatrical expressions in voice and movement. The notable scenes in this respect were Tom's angry accusations of his mother, when he tends to be physically violent and verbally vitriolic; but when it reached a certain climatic point it stops and he suddenly withdraws as though realization dawns on him that he has given vent to all his suppressed frustration and said unpardonable words to his mother. He can do nothing but leave the scene in a shameful silence. While he is leaving his mother (enacted by Kaveri) just stands still with unshed tears in her eyes, lowers her voice and says, "I will not speak to you..." Rashmi (the other actress who enacts the same role) continues "till you apologize…" Pathos could not have been captured better; heartbreak could not have been staged more poignantly. Again, when the three men enacting the role of Tom come back, drunken, riotous, noisy and recapture the scene of the films that they have seen, the magician whom they had encountered, the quality of acting reached its crescendo. The audience could only watch that scene open-mouthed and clap along with the two Lauras as though they were also part of the inner drama which was being staged. How many such scenes where propriety and sobriety were thrown to winds and the actors acted with "agility and abandonment" I hope the director stood in the aisles and felt very proud of himself.
There is more to say. There have been many changes in the script from the original "Glass Menagerie" which inspired Rajiv. But the most remarkable change is the end of the play when Tom, haunted by Laura's situation, revisits his old home (The original ends with him reminiscing about Laura). Laura has taken charge of her life; she builds up her self esteem; she is working and taking care of her old mother; she, in fact has taken on the role that Tom was forced to take on earlier, that of the breadwinner and supporter of the family. She is no more the crippled, helpless, fragile Laura; she is a new Laura, a self sufficient young woman who accepts her physical and emotional condition in her stride and makes the best of it. Thus the original tragic and bleak ending has been transformed into a positive and hopeful ending. But, more than that, it has depicted the inner strength of a handicapped young woman who reconstructs her life, in a believable manner without any obvious messages and patently pro-woman propaganda. In fact, the character of Laura is elevated with a few strokes of the pen; she tells her emotionally distraught mother, "Let him go, he has to go; I shall take care of myself and you too." Very simple, but very effective words said without any fanfare. To my mind, that is the high point in the play, when a seemingly fragile handicapped young woman transforms herself into a brave and strong human being. It also reminds us of the innumerable acts of heroism that ordinary people perform in their day to day life which goes unobserved by the media, politics and societal norms.
Of the many experimental theatre devices used in this play, two deserve special mention. One, is the box out of which all the props required to make scenic changes throughout the play are taken out by the narrator Tom and assembled right in front of the eyes of the audience. Wooden frames and cane work are so imaginatively used to create the impressionistic and suggestive scene changes. They are, as the narrator suggests, non-realistic objects, just drawing outlines of needed props. Thus the same object becomes a plate or a flat hat; a handbag or serving utensils or lunch packs. The wooden frames or stands become telephones, typewriters, doorways and windows. It is like magic happening in front of the viewers' eyes. The picket fence-like frame becomes the door which can be opened or closed to mark the entry or exit of the characters in or out of the house. Once the box is closed, the past or the memory is wiped clean. The last scene with realistic props, a table and three chairs signify the present and the immediate reality. This blending of the past with the present, memory with reality even through the props shows a heightened awareness and modern sensitivity to the stage and its potential. These suggestive props are light and therefore easy to move, they do not occupy too much of space, so leave a great deal of space for the actors to move freely and simulate action.
It gives a hint of actual space without using realistic props.
Even as music is used in a non-intrusive and yet atmosphere-creating manner, the dances also are done as visuals which form a part of the plot, integrated, seamless, recreating the ambience of the times. On the whole, the changes from one scene to another or changes within the scenes have a filmic, frame by frame movement. As in film, it is through fragmentation that the development of the plot is created; intensity of emotion is also created through fragmentation. Rajiv Krishnan has proven through this technique that film can be brought into theatre. Again, he has also proven that while "spoken words" are very important in theatre, so are visuals and continuous change in visuals through movements, body language, and shifting of scenes through unobtrusive prop changes. Another technique which he uses effectively are the "silences" which proved to be as dramatic or even better than the spoken words. Lighting by Natesh also played an important part in scene changes, scenic effects and the elusive, ephemeral quality demanded by a memory play. Costumes designed by Kaveri Lalchand showed imagination and period flavour.
There has been a large team at work to assemble this play. There was also a good team of sponsors, including a theatre group, Madras Players. It is in that sense a victory for true team spirit and camaraderie. Again, kudos to Rajiv Krishnan for assembling and holding this team together and finally evolving a play, which moved in a seamless, harmonious and unpretentious manner to the delight of most of the viewers. In the course of the play, many new things emerged. Malavika who was one of the Lauras has a very melodious and powerful singing voice; Asim Sharma can if he wants put on a winsome smile or tears in his eyes, move the audience to emotional heights. Rashmi Devadasan even when she had to act along with Kaveri, a consummate actress can hold her own. Even Kaveri who is acknowledged as a great actress can touch heights which she has never touched when directed by a sensitive and skilful director like Rajiv.
a few shortcomings in the play which should also be mentioned in all fairness.
The romantic scene between Laura and Jim dragged and had a wooden and stilted
quality to it. The term "Vindaloo" was used once too often and it grated.
The poem by Asim Sharma paid too much attention to rhyming and less to
poetic or lyrical qualities. The introduction in the beginning tended to
be at times too explanatory and didactic. But on the whole these shortcomings
are not even worth mentioning when compared to the heights the play achieved
in the seamless presentation, the innovative theatre techniques and devices,
the emotional timbre and the spontaneity in acting. Using the Anglo-Indian
landscape as a background, the play soared high into the realms of universal
situations and emotional relationships which is its most important achievement.
Sankaranarayanan is a translator and journalist and holds a PhD in cinema.
She is a regular contributor to narthaki.com