Sunday, October 7, 2012

Two evenings of theatre

One of the greatest (and rare) pleasures of being in Kolkata, no matter how short the stint, is the still vibrant theatre scene in the city. Taking advantage of the amazing theatre groups, great plays, fine halls, and extremely affordable (even dirt cheap) tickets is something I make a point of doing every chance I get. In keeping with this tradition, I have watched a couple of plays in the last few days. Interestingly, the experiences were vastly different.

The first play was more expensive, at 100 rupees a ticket, and by a hot, in, theatre group run and directed by a currently well known actor. The play was William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, albeit in Bangla, and the group was Kaushik Sen’s Swapnasandhani. As can be imagined, I had some really high expectations from it. Being familiar with the rich theatre culture in the state, and the history of experimentation and adaptation, I expected an interesting evening of a creative rereading or at least an adaptation of the original. Instead, what I got was a line by line, scene by scene, act by act, straight-forward staging of the original play, only translated into an archaic, old fashioned, over formal Bangla. Frankly… disappointing.

The acting, of pretty much everyone other than Kaushik himself, was average, or less than average, with Lady Macbeth – probably the most complicated, demanding, and interesting of the characters – being played by a current “serial” actress in a shallow, filmy, and nyaka way. This in itself would have been enough to ruin my enjoyment of the play. Add to this some very unimpressive acting by the rest of the cast, boring costumes, and ho hum sets, and the whole thing just wasn’t worth the ticket price. Also, it was frankly too damn long! At over three and a half hours, most of the scenes were stretched painfully, and the only ones really worth the time were the ones with the witches, and even in those half the time you couldn’t hear what they were saying.

All in all, I yawned though the entire show, and walked out with a headache and a sense of lost time and wasted effort.

And then, there was “ja nei bharote” -- ticket price Rs 40. Based on episodes from the Mahabharata, this “what India doesn’t have” was an all around pleasure. Manoj Mitra is a stalwart of Bengali theatre, and a renowned actor of Bengali cinema, and has been for decades. Whether it is the superior experience on stage and on camera, or simply better thespian ability, he comes across as a much more effortless and natural actor than Kaushik. Happily, most of the other actors were close, if not equally good, in acting ability. The play itself, Mitra’s take on the injustices in the Mahabharata, is worth spending two hours over even on its own. And no…these are not the traditionally thought of injustices like Karna. The unthinking as well as premeditated injustices and tortures physical, emotional, and mental – perpetrated on so many of the characters, especially the women, is something that traditional examinations of the epic never pay attention to.

It was great to see the re-imagining and re-reading of this most canonical of our canonical texts, the most epic of our epics. Mitra’s light touch made some very strong and pertinent points, through laughter, and kept me entertained while making me think. The issues raised, the alternatives suggested, and the parallels drawn were quite fascinating and fulfilling. Overall, an evening well spent.

It is what I expect from theatre. Don’t just show me the narrative as is, as I have seen it a thousand times in many languages. DO something with it. Twist it, break it, rethink it, ruin it, transform it, transport it, adapt it --- SOMETHING! I would much rather watch a Maqbool than a straight forward Macbeth, and I definitely enjoy the brain-food that a Ja Nei Bharote provides, even if some scenes could have been shorter, or some people less histrionic. THIS is good theatre!   

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