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Action time in theatre town

Bedroom farce to Shakespeare’s most celebrated villain — suddenly there’s a lot happening on the English stage in town. Madhumita Bhattacharyya takes a behind-the-scenes look at the whys and the whats

Act I, scene i

A nosy Chinese waitress, frumpy lords and ladies, and all the action’s in the bedroom. A woman disappears into a food trolley as her unsuspecting husband strolls into a hotel room where she is most definitely not alone…

It’s a cool autumn evening, Saturday. Last week there was bawdy bedroom farce, this weekend there’s some Brit fare, and next week there’s a Mumbai production to look forward to. More and more roads in Calcutta are leading to English theatre.

The past few months have seen a play almost every weekend. There are audiences aplenty, pockets full and time enough for this kind of entertainment. The brimming air-conditioned halls for the live-action players are proof that Calcutta has time for quality English shows. Though many of the names in the roll call are decades old, others are appearing for the first time. Appearing with all their enthusiasm and vitality, if not experience.

This year, the old hands came together for a Red Curtain reunion with Harlequinade. Names and faces that have dotted the Calcutta stage for decades are back in professional robes for the newly-formed Limelight. There are young actors in the wings as well. Apart from the St Xavier’s and Jadavpur University productions and the heartening display at the British Council’s annual school fest, young groups, like The Theatricians, are coming up, as is an inter-city, inter-college theatre fest.

“The time has come when a fraction of the fortune we spend on cricket and disco-dandiyas is transferred to the promotion of English theatre,” says Victor Banerjee, who has consented to be “master of ceremonies” at an amateur theatre fest from November 20 to 23. Organised by students of St Stephen’s College, 30-minute shows will be put up at Swabhumi, Seagull and Oxford by groups invited from Delhi and Calcutta.

Banerjee has helped hone young talent, too, at the British Council workshops preceding the school drama festival. “The British Council does a marvellous job conducting workshops every year where it has been my privilege to associate with young boys and girls whose creativity and talent are phenomenal,” he adds.

Having finished its 24th year, the enthusiasm from schools has only grown. “We try to give the students exposure to encourage them to think of theatre as a serious career option,” says Sujata Sen, director, British Council. They have also been “toying with the idea” of having a similar event for college students.

Drama critic and professor Ananda Lal does not agree there has been a “resurgence” in English theatre, but he does feel that the increased activity in the college and university drama circuit is a positive sign. “For years, professional drama groups have complained that there is no young blood coming in. But this was a natural result of the fact that there was no theatre happening in colleges,” explains Lal, who is preparing for the Jadavpur University English department’s annual theatre production. This December’s choice is Ionesco’s Killing Game.

Act I, scene iI

Shakespeare, the holocaust and the Bible. A lone man on centrestage, the audience in peals of laughter one moment, stunned into silence the next by the sheer power and passion of words.

The British Council’s contribution to the Calcutta drama scene goes beyond the school circuit. Shylock was among the finest productions to hit town this season, and they hope to bring a “big show” in by February. “The teams from the UK have always been very happy with the response in Calcutta. They have expected — and found — knowledgeable audiences,” adds Sen.

Ad-and-theatre veteran Alyque Padamsee would join them in their appreciation. “Performing in Calcutta is always wonderful because it is a city that genuinely understands and loves theatre,” says Padamsee, who is hoping to bring his latest production R and J (his version of Romeo and Juliet) to Calcutta sometime during the winter.

Despite the increasing number of groups, Renu Roy of Spandan doesn’t spy saturation point, yet. “Audiences will grow as a result, and hopefully this will spark off healthy competition.” Spandan, which has so far produced 10 plays in the past 10 years, has already staged one “runaway hit” starring Konkona Sen Sharma, Pinky and Asha Mary. “We have scheduled six more dates for this play,” reveals Roy, who feels that the Indian-English play was easier for audiences than the traditional British or American fare. But they have also accelerated their pace, with Broadway Bound and The Glass Menagerie lined up for the winter.

With cinemas going empty, the box-office could be equally cruel to the resurgent English theatre. But, here too, Roy points out, alternate revenue streams are essential. Most shows have sponsors. “But if you are selling tickets, you have to give professional quality theatre.” Also, in favour of theatre’s viability versus that of cinema, plays have a restricted number of shows – optimally four to six, adds Roy. This is a logistical impossibility for films, at least till the multiplex format comes to town.

Good, bad or middling, the more the merrier as long as audiences aren’t complaining. And it is great news for a crop of actors at ease with English and with a love for acting. Take Konkona. “As long as there is quality English theatre happening in Calcutta, the stage will be my priority,” she says, after the first two shows of the Sohag Sen-directed Pinky and Asha Mary.

Actress Debjani Roy Chatterjee, who appeared in Two in to One, the first Limelight production, directed by Dean Turner, adds: “Given that the actors hold day jobs, it takes tremendous dedication to put it all together… It is great that some groups are taking the initiative to take English theatre out of the clubs.”

With Lighthouse chopped in half, Globe recently resurrected after prolonged closure and New Empire barely escaping the municipal axe, Calcutta’s two-and-a-half halls — with their often Hindi, often mediocre Hollywood fare — have let the English audiences down. But no harm, no foul. It’s off to the theatre we go…

Act I, scene iII

The stage is bare; the lights are back on. The audience is trooping out of the south Calcutta hall, already planning for the next play to catch with the gang…

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