April is the Shakespearean month, and in a pleasant surprise, Bengali theatre has taken up the Bard’s cause with lavish productions of two classic tragedies, involving such big names as Soumitra Chatterjee and Bibhash Chakraborty. Unavoidably a comparison ensues, in which Anya Theatre’s Hamlet (picture) scores over Minerva Repertory’s King Lear.
Chakraborty nimbly evades any controversial statement in his director’s note, but in another article enumerates his reasons for doing Hamlet: one, “to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them”; two, “Denmark’s a prison... one o’ th’ worst”; three, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”; and four, “this three years I have took note of it: the age is grown so pick’d that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier”. Bengali viewers do not need professorial comments to tell them what Denmark, and Hamlet, stand for in this interpretation; to guide them, Chakraborty adds a prologue placing the play in a Park Street pub, and ends it there too. He does not fully convince me of the necessity of this setting, but, at least, he shows a political concern, unlike Suman Mukhopadhyay, who safely sidesteps equally tense possibilities in King Lear. Wisely, Chakraborty uses a recent translation by Shakti Biswas that allows him contemporary elbowroom, though I cannot understand why “nunnery” should become beshyalay (brothel).
The principals essay competent performances. Surajit Bandyopadhyay portrays a distracted, apparently even demented prince, true to convention, but always has his eyes on the audience — which detracts from psychological complexity. His withdrawn parents (Nandini Bhowmik and Gautam De) betray little guilt, making them seem more culpable to us. Ophelia (Dyuti Ghosh Haldar) is not the usual waif, yet is denied the chance to disintegrate in front of us. Debashis Roychowdhury gives Laertes the most original characterization, speechifying from the start like a chip off Polonius’ block. Kamal Chattopadhyay plays a delightful cameo as a genial Gravedigger. The other funny innovation, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in trench coats repeating lines like Thompson and Thomson, simply does not work. Because why would Hamlet have made friends with such abject idiots? And the spindly Ghost in long white beard and oversize crown, an obvious escapee from Sukumar Ray, commands neither respect nor fear.
Both productions share one feature — a pleasure to behold — laboriously constructed two-tier wooden sets, designed by Soumik-Piyali for Hamlet and Hiran Mitra for Lear, both lit perfectly by Joy Sen. However, Suman Mukhopadhyay’s direction of Lear is curiously and disappointingly cold, presenting Sunil Chatterjee’s old and mundane translation like a lifeless school edition. To Bengalis who cannot follow Shakespeare, it does the job of telling the story. But Mukhopadhyay obviously does not have either his mind or heart in it, leave alone a vision.
Most galling is Minerva’s zero knowledge of how a repertory should operate, therefore wasting taxpayers’ money. It employs a full-time salaried staff of 14 actors, most of whom run around as random soldiers, messengers and servants here. Although it has three actresses, it casts only one (Cordelia), deeming the others unfit for Goneril and Regan. So it hires, at high extra cost, six senior performers from outside for choice parts, virtually expressing no confidence in its home team. Mukhopadhyay may as well have done this Lear for the group theatre, except that no group would hand him a seven-digit budget. Even a workshop performance directed by him exclusively with the rep members would have been more worthwhile than this beached leviathan.
Of course, repertories are permitted a star or two. Spectators are in fact flocking just to see Soumitra Chatterjee, like Laurence Olivier in his seventies as the same tragic hero, and we must marvel at his power and stamina. But without directorial inspiration to motivate the others, they provide pedestrian support. Of the guests, Jayraj Bhattacharya tries to give the Fool some variety, but is himself typecast — are these eccentrics the only roles he will ever receive? Among the rep actors, only Kaushik Adhikari (Edgar), Anirban Bhattacharya (Edmund) and Ankita Majhi (Cordelia) get enough scope to prove their potential.