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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Love and War in the Time of Call-Era

Non-Disclaimer: This is an opinion post and not a review. However, it is not devoid of review-elements!

I saw the play Flame of the Forest produced by JustUs Repertory in association with The Madras Players, written and directed by Gowri Ramnarayan and acted, in most parts, by people whose features I could not delineate and would have failed to recognise had I not known their faces from previous exposure to the cultural legions of Chennai. So much for mood lighting. In fact I left with the feeling that the play would as well have worked better - given a certain decent tautness of the script that surfaced on and off to remind you that a play can transcend the production if well written - with just a few parcans for general lighting.

Now to the author: my first exposure to Gowri Ramnarayan was in 1997 when I 'also' figured in a local production of Vijay Tendulkar's KANYA DHAN, translated into English by her (which incidentally was performed by a travelling Mumbai group on the same day as the FLAME in a near-by venue). And my recent closer acquaintance to Gowri Ramnarayan started in 2005 through her Dark Horse and an acting stint in her second oeuvre Rural Phantasy. My admiration for her as a translator and writer is high. The essence of translated and/or adapted work of art is that it must not mess with the quintessence of the original. She seems to be a master craftsman at that.

I have not read nor can I claim to read Kanya Dhan because I can not Marathi; but, having read both Kanayazhiyin Kanavu (which became Rural Phantasy) and Sivagaamiyin Sabatham - Sivagaami's Vow - (which has now inspired the Flame of the Forest), as well as my share of acquaintance with one Prof. Neelakanta Sastri's works, I can earnestly acknowledge her honesty and dignity as a translator and history-oriented writer. Now here is the truth: among her four stage works that I know of, only one is original. FLAME. Even her Dark Horse is largely made up of Arun Kolatkar's original writings, around which and the poet's personality and life itself the play revolves. So I would like to see a totally original conception and creation from Gowri Ramnarayan before I would involve myself in the analytical vocation of a literary critic that I was trained 8 years for through my Ph.D period. Nevertheless, I would still do it gingerly because I am not qualified to critique a work that involves areas of music and dance I don't know the grammar of!

About the productions: Gowri's conceptual vision as an artistic director is coupled with the dramaturg in her. As a result what one gets - if one gets to meet her and hear from her about her show before the show hits the public eye, that is - is a very rich visceral image stretching grandiosely over two hours of performance time in our mind's eye, where she makes you visualise the resplendent colours of the scheme, not to mention the entire texture and the hardness or softness of the light. I still remember her explaining the last tableaux of Dark Horse, with the golden halo behind the Arunachaleswara posture that Drithiman goes into! But somehow for some reason I have often found T.S.Eliot true: "Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow... Between the conception/And the creation/Between the emotion/And the response/Falls the Shadow."
In a sense this is very true of most artistic directors (those I would call artistic since there are a lot of hacks who masquerade as either artists or directors in Chennai) because of the kind of circuit we work in. It has not to do with the paucity of talents or raw materials or designers who can envision the director's mind. It simply has to do with our inability to push the boundaries of creativity in a compromise to hit the stage as scheduled so that our fear of 'the longer you soak, the soggier it gets' gets allayed. I do not see the point. A finer thing would be to not set a production target date. Work on the paper and at rehearsals till you reach the stage where it can be shared with the first public, meaning your designers, then set a target date and start run throughs or tweak throughs. Of course, for that you need patient artists or at least actors, who understand the creative process and plod on. For the rest, there are bedroom farces and leave-your-brain-in-the-freezers 90 minute entertainers where you can keep your cellular phones on!

Coming back... I have personally listened to Gowri explaining the visuals in Dark Horse and with the then given resources I could not even produce 10% of her colourful vision on stage when I helped technical assist one of the runs in Chennai. Then, Rural Phantasy too... I remember her elucidations of what she had envisioned. I hope she got what she wanted. I really can't comment on it since I was an accessory fixture to the sets and lights on stage during the performance. Hope I didn't disturb her vision, standing out as an odd-piece of jigzaw that refused to paste itself properly. And now FLAME: I have heard from her once about the production plan. It sounded great. Probably as a result of that descriptive session, the show disappointed me.

FLAME is a play I would like to draw parallels with Via Dolorosa by David Hare, Sticks and Bones (to a limited extent) by David Rabe as well as his best screenplay film Casualties of War (starring MJ Fox and Sean Penn), Andorra of Max Frisch, Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt's Romulus the Great and some others. The reason. It talks about war and the senselessness of the same in a society bereft of any values. The play much reminded me of Duerrenmatt's Romulus the Great and its final scene where Romulus, the last Roman Emperor (according to the play) and Odoaker, the invading Teuton meet after the plot has managed to create a greater anticipation for the better part of the 2 and half hour story. When they finally meet, we realise how both actually hate war. Astounding work Romulus is. Similarly FLAME in the scene where Pulikesin and Mahendra Varman meet. Of course there is only one side here lighting the candle, while the vile jackal under the skin of cow that Pulikesin is, he promptly and expectantly backstabs the Pallava king. Mahendra Varman is an artist trapped in a Kshatriya body (much like Arjuna in Mahabharat) and he pays the price for not behaving the Warrior he was. It is a humane work, FLAME is, much needed in these times of (misguided) Love and War in the Time of Call-Era.
However, much as I liked the play, I doubt how many would have appreciated it as a read. For its part, the script is not without its little faults; the pace for example. As a work of writing, the action decides a certain tempo for the plot to develop, in the case of any playscript. Since it is not always possible to create a frenetic tempo just to engage the nails to the teeth at the print level, the director has to find a way to balance this slowness when the work goes on performance, especially in a climate where grey means boredom and miscomprehension of slowness for lack of tempo. Perhaps this is then one area where the production failed. Especially given the fact that the playwright and the director are one and the same. Often the sag in tempo was glaring. It could be due to several factors. Nevertheless, in a work that is polemical, the production must close the gap between the page and the stage. Agreed that it was the opening night; still... one expects the work to open in good shape. The opening night word could make or mar a production and that has happened in the past everywhere. The fade-ins and -outs and cross-fades added to the woes. A simple rule of thumb of lighting for theatre is that before or even as the actor reaches the space of action, the light must find him/her. The light almost always came after the actor started speaking, leading one to conjecture the technicians perhaps did not get to attend or have the comfort of enough run throughs. This further abetted the problem of concentration. It made listening to the dialogues difficult. I mean, there was a lot of discourse and subtext in the story.

The point further is: the play is a treatise play. And the problem is: most Chennai audience have no aesthetics for such plays. You provide them comedies, they appreciate. So you could imagine my chagrin when I was more concerned about the cellphone ringtones I kept hearing because the performance failed to grip the audience who had turned up 1) because they have heard or read Kalki's work, 2) to hear and watch some good Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam Dance (that have become the draw in Gowri's shows) or perhaps because 3) Priyadarshini GOvind was dancing (similar to T M Krishna singing in RP earlier). One of the three or all. In any case, so you reap as you sow! And how do you expect an audience that is used to Sabha dramas or Kutchery listening and Dance watching to suddenly behave in a way one would expect an ideal theatre-goer to behave. It is high time we used mobile jammers in the auditorium. In the end, I felt cheated and deprived of what could have been an exhilarating experience given the potential for production. Now, I cannot even claim to do a proper review of the show because it was a very harrassed watch. FLAME is a nice literary work like RP as well as Dark Horse. We are perhaps not yet ready to be treated to theatre productions of these plays. But, brave then is Gowri who keeps walking Via the metaphorical Dolorosa everytime she creates her Iyal-Isai-Nataka creations.

Having said this about the production, I still do not hate everything about the production (psst! psst!), except that it is the misfortune of earnest theatre practitioners of Chennai to be caught or stuck with an audience that is in an eternal cycle of elitist and socialite warp. No one wants to watch a play with total attention. No artist can expect to spellbind all the audience all the time, but audience must realise that they have an equal responsibility to put an effort to make the show happen. Even where it may not bother the actors on stage, it does to your friendly neighbour. One of these days the "sssshssss!" are gonna turn "quiet or quit". Then the friend in the next seat may turn the fiend that pokes your ribsides! On the other hand, if we really do push the stakes on the audience by transferring the weight to them by giving intense scripts with emotionally draining and challenging and risky performances, we really can salvage some genuine audience. For the rest, the word is QUIT. Or go watch farces. But are we ready to lose those few hundred or thousand bucks in the bargain? I guess so! Not that anyone's salary or income in Chennai comes solely out of theatre as of now.

By the way, I visited the performance on the premier night, on 29th June 2007, the Friday.


abhorigine said...

What can I say, KK? These are your opinions and this is your blog, and I NEVER argue with bloggers or any other form of writers.

Because you ask me, I believe every work of Gowri's so far has been original, though Dark Horse had Kolatkar's poetry and Rural Phantasy was based on her own translation of a Kalki short story. They were both the playwright's deepfelt responses to certain situations in her life intertwined with the work of the authors in question. As for Flame, it was again inspired by Sivakamiyin Sapatham, but is an original play.

As for your other comments, they are your opinions, as I have already said. I have lived through these plays as a partner in crime, though adding no value from my side, and I am very proud of them. I do not want to comment on other English plays written locally as I haven't seen many of them, but I think Gowri's work is an important contribution to theatre in Chennai.
Thank you for inviting my response and warm regards.

Anonymous said...

Dear (sir) KK,

Hope you are doing well. Best wishes for the upcoming theatrical season. I am ok!

Coming to the post... I caught the show on the last day, Sunday, first of July. Surpisingly the "cell annoyances" you referred to as being harassing on day 1 were absent for the final showing... either that or I was too involved in the play. Yes, I liked the play. Vis-a-vis the bedroom farces and empty entertainments we have, it was a different experience and perhaps a poignant one at that too.
Regarding the more technical points of the production... I have the insight - nothing but a layman's view - to only deal with one thing - the "pace" of the show, particularly considering the fact that there was no intermission, which was in a way good and in a way not so. I do concur with you in the sense that there were pockets of "inactivity"... don't know what you would call it in theatrical terms... and these pockets gave the feeling of the play being a little dragged out.
But I guess you are right in saying that only a miniscule fraction of our audience truly appreciates such productions for what they are. I am glad I can at least enjoy the experience though I do not have the expertise to comment upon it!

Eliza said...

Keep up the good work.