The Hindu Metroplus Theatre Festival, August 4 - 14, 2006 
Nine Plays - Nine theatre groups from Chennai and other metropolises 
- Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Chennai 

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. 

The Shadow Box
OTHELLO, which the director himself describes as a Play in Black and White, by Can and Abel Theatre, adapted and directed by Roysten Abel was perhaps the best play of the festival. I felt that in this day and age this was probably one of the best approaches to present Shakespeare on stage. The adaptation was brilliant in the sense that it managed to capture various aspects of theatre - the practice and the performance, the manner in which the process sometimes overtakes the final performance and changes its quality and content, the relationships which develop between the actors, the phenomenon of the reality of life overtaking the essentials of the theatre, resulting in new climaxes. In short it was more of a commentary on theatre rather than the performance of a specific play. To call it a play within a play would be superficial and banal. Can we then call it an experiment about experimentation itself and its consequences? For it was an experiment within the play that resulted in a chain of events that followed. The director of the play (himself an actor in the play) casts their Kathakali coach, a dark-skinned Assamese, who speaks very little English as the main character Othello. The idea of a Kathakali coach to train the movements in a Shakespearean play is in itself an experiment. The next experiment was casting him as the hero of the play. He is not trained in the traditional sense of the term to take on the role of a Shakespearean character. 

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 revelation. 

Valley Song
MACBETH by Ace productions, Mumbai, directed by Alyque Padamsee came next. 
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! 

AMADEUS, the 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. 

Thicker than Blood
THICKER THAN BLOOD, a Srilankan play written by Delon Weerasinghe and directed by V Balakrishnan of Theatre Nisha group of Chennai had a very powerful and unusual theme. It prompted us to look at the Srilankan ethnic conflict from the Sinhala point of view. But, it turned out to be a very ordinary and tame production, due to lack of imaginative direction and effective acting. Even the film clippings shown were of poor quality and did not enhance the overall tempo of the play. One expected better acting from well known actors such as T T Srinath and Karthik Srinivasan. 
GOA by Theatrecian, Kolkota, written by Asif Currimbhoy and directed by Shuktara Lal was another disappointment. The script was layered and intriguing. But, neither the director nor the actors explored the layers and brought out the metaphorical and tragic aspects of the theme. Sometimes, it is painful to watch a group of actors under the guidance of a director meandering peripherally through a subtle and meaningful script and floundering. This was what I felt when I watched GOA. Why do they take up scripts which they do not fully understand and assimilate? One can be sarcastic and conclude with the famous Shakespearean words, "Ambition should be made of sterner stuff." But, instead, I keep the smoldering discontent to myself and hope the group may perform better next time. 

The questions 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