Metroplus Theatre Festival, August 4 - 14, 2006
September 8, 2006
For nine days in August (August 4-6, 9-14), in the evenings from 6pm onwards, all roads in Chennai led to the Music Academy, where the Hindu Metroplus Theatre Festival was being held. People - women, men, sometimes children - old, middle-aged and young - braved the traffic congestions, the occasional rains and other inconveniences and gave their attendance at the Music Academy. Till then, one never realized that there were so many English Theatre lovers in Chennai. Music Academy is by no means the best hall to hold serious theatre performances. However, being one of the largest halls with decent acoustics it served the purpose of the festival adequately. On most of the days the hall was three quarters full; on some days, on the days when A VERY BRITISH AFFAIR and MACBETH were performed, the hall was fully full. One can safely say that The Hindu has managed to evoke the interest of the Chennai public to the possibilities of English Theatre and increased their awareness to theatre itself.
Of the nine performances, I managed to see seven. The ones that I missed are the inaugural and the concluding shows - AVERY BRITISH AFFAIR by Escape Theatre, Singapore, and BEYOND THERAPY by Q Theatre Productions, Mumbai. This review, therefore, cannot include my impressions of those two productions. However, I did have discussions with many theatre lovers who had seen those shows; they did not receive any favourable reviews.
So, for me,
the festival started with THE SHADOW BOX, a Pulitzer Prize winning play
by Michael Cristofer, directed by Mithran Devanesan and produced by Madras
Players. It was a very somber and serious play. The first half moved very
slowly meandering through the experiences of three cancer patients and
their families. Many felt that the play was too long and could have been
edited. Others found it very depressing. However, the
director did not
want to take out even one line from the play. I could empathize with his
feelings in this matter. The seemingly tedious build-up during the first
half was absolutely essential to bring out the hopelessness and weariness
that the patients felt and communicate this bleak mood to the audience.
There was no way in which this mood could have been lightened without doing
injustice to the playwright and his intentions. The only release came from
the final acceptance by all the characters in the play of the inevitability
of their condition. All the actors tried to give life to the roles they
did. But it was Vishalam, P C Ram and Mithran himself (through his voice-over
as the doctor) who stole the show. Vishalam had only a few repetitive lines
and a funny song to bring out the character of a crotchety old woman. She
did it with amazing restraint and a body language which captured the shriveling
quality of a cancer ravaged body immaculately. P C Ram depicted the futile
rage of the writer with amazing skill; And Mithran's neutral voice managed
to convey an objective compassion for his patients. Gayathri, as the wife
of the writer also managed to capture the character's volatile personality.
The sets were very simple, practical and stark. This play called for a
seriousness from the audience too; it
appealed to some and distressed the others.
These are experiments within the play; and the larger experiment by the director was, presenting Othello, a time-honoured Shakespearean play as a practice cum performance with a non-English speaking hero whose real emotions ultimately takes precedence to the emotions he was supposed to depict in the play. Add to this the animal like grace (almost like a cougar or a panther) with which the actor Adil Hussain moved and acted and the unrestrained, high - pitched levels to his voice as it rose in the throes of emotion and we have a new version of Othello, the Moor. While Barry John who took the role of Iago and the other actors acted with the expected British restraint, Othello, roared, moved swiftly, nearly came to throttling and killing his opponents on stage. In the Japanese adaptations of MACBETH as THE THRONE OF BLOOD and KING LEAR as RAN, Akira Kurasova transformed Shakespeare into a Japanese theme. Roysten Abel has done the same with OTHELLO. He has made OTHELLO an Indian version of the original play giving the hero's passions an Indian aura. This is what true adaptation is all about. The greatness of Shakespeare is that his plays can be adapted to any situation and milieu. All that it requires is a director with imagination and spirit of experimentation. No wonder that all the remaining plays paled into insignificance when compared to OTHELLO.
Next came VALLEY
SONG written by Athol Fugard and directed by Arundhati Raja, from Artistes'
Repertory Theatre, Bangalore. Though it was premiered in South Africa as
early as 1995, even now it is relevant in many ways. The actual political
background is that of the conflict between South Africans and their white
rulers and the beginnings of the protests against the racial domination
of the whites over the blacks. But, specifically it deals with the clash
between the older generation, fearful of change and the younger generation
with their hopes and aspirations and the resulting impatience. The minimalistic
stage, the dual roles as The Author and Abraam Jonkers by Jagdish Raja,
and of Veronica, the young girl by Nandini Rao, the songs sung in a pure
voice with artlessness, captured the hearts of the audience by the very
simplicity and spontaneity of the production. Jagdish Raja's transformation
from the author, a white man to Jonkers a South African farmer through
changes in voice and body language, and donning of a cap was indeed remarkable.
The songs sung by Nandini Raja without any musical score or a fully trained
voice, was another miracle. That a play could be so effective with two
actors, minimum props, unspectacular lighting, and natural acting was a
Alyque Padamsee is known to the Chennai theatre lovers through his well known and famous production of EVITA. But, with age Padamsee seems to have regressed; his MACBETH was a sorry show in every way. First of all the approach that he took of straight presentation of the play seemed very antiquated; Add to that the casual and appalling manner in which all the actors without any exception recited the famous lines of this play. The period costumes and the supposedly spectacular sets and costumes were probably intended to hoodwink the audience. However, the Chennai audience, with their scholarly familiarity with Shakespeare was not moved by this obvious propagandist ploy. Being an advertising man, Padamsee's next technique was to try and dazzle the audience with the film clippings and sound effects. The film clippings were very ordinary and unimaginative; the sound effects did not enhance the play in any way. The final straw was the rendition of Tantric chants. That was indeed a pretentious gesture by an ignorant person. Two and a half hours of abysmal boredom! Till I watched Padamsee's version of MACBETH, I never realized that even Shakespeare could be boring if not presented well!
momentous play by Peter Schaffer is what Michael Muthu and his group Boardwalkers
chose to enact for this festival. The powerful and evocative lines in the
script and the soul stirring music of Mozart did most of the job. The power
of words and music won the day. Michael himself as Salieri spoilt his rendition
through constant droning and non-variation of voice. There were moments
when Michael forgot to drone his words and skyrocketed into flashes of
brilliance in depicting Salieri's desperation and the resulting vengeance
he wreaked on Mozart. But, it was Arun in the role of Mozart who carried
the play single-handedly on his shoulders. He did not act, but lived the
role and the tragedy of Mozart was effectively unveiled. Anuradha as Mozart's
wife also did a convincing job. The rest of the characters did not matter.
The sets and costumes brought out the flavours of the period in which Mozart
and Salieri lived. However, One wished Michael had taken some liberties
with the script and visualized it as a contemporary plot. He could have
explored the phenomenon of Mozart, the libertine producing the most original
and spiritual music or how mediocrity can often overwhelm genius.
that remain are - why hasn't Hindu invited groups which do Indian plays?
There are three Indian plays which have recently been invited to perform
in a Belgian festival - two from Maharashtra and one from London. Why didn't
Hindu's selection panel find out such plays? Why doesn't Hindu insist on
scripts written by local people for enactment? There are the three qualities
missing from the Hindu Theatre Festival, originality, individuality, social
and political relevance. Let us hope that the theatre festival would, over
the years, change its texture and character and be the harbinger of a meaningful
theatre movement in Chennai.
Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan is a translator and journalist and holds a PhD in cinema. She is a regular contributor to narthaki.com