To stage a play in a space smaller than a standard auditorium is no doubt a challenge, and how a director handles this challenge is a clue to his or her faculty. Shuktara Lal staged Chiriyon ka Pinjra (translated into Hindi by Sanchayita Bhattacharya and Anubha Fatehpuria from the English play, The Cage of Sparrows, by Ramneek Singh) at the Padatik Little Theatre II (on Oct 13) — a hall just big enough for the performance. Consequently, there was very little space left for the audience. So the space had to be used pertinently; every little nook and corner of the hall, including where the audience sat, had to be invaded by the actors whenever necessary.
This made me wonder about how Lal would have designed the performance in a bigger space, say, a proper auditorium. Considered in the context of the set designing, the sound and the lighting, it was fairly clear that Lal had used the space intelligently. One couldn’t imagine a better effect that may have been created in an auditorium. The confined space provided the director with a number of advantages.
The minimal set and the restricted space gave off a sense of claustrophobia that was vital to convey the characters’ state of mind. The growing anxiety and helplessness climaxed at one point through the sudden blaring of a police siren fitted to the roof. The use of the overhead net was most significant. The criss-cross patterns that it wove into the set and on the actors’ skins appeared ominous, for these represented, vividly, the inevitability of the characters’ fates — the trap that was set at the beginning and that closed on Gurnaam, Rinku, Tarsem and others in the end.
The small space unavoidably created a sense of intimacy with the characters. The performance was disturbing, even suffocating, at times. This was not because the play affected its audience by coming physically closer, but because the subject of the play — the dreams, sufferings and tribulations of the families of two agents who smuggle people from a small village in Punjab to Europe — is in itself intensely dramatic. The script too is full of emotions and a passionate sense of longing and loss. Such concentrated use of several highly dramatic elements in the restricted space created an overpowering effect.
It may be desirable to overwhelm the audience in certain cases. But in this case, the performance perhaps needed to give its audience a bit more space — both literally and figuratively. The loss of a detached perspective can sometimes mar the effect a play could have otherwise had. Here, the performance captivated me while it was on; but once it ended and I came out of the hall, the effect seemed to diminish bit by bit, the drama seemed to wane. The play did create a spell, but not an enduring one.
The script of Chiriyon ka Pinjra has won several awards, and justifiably so. The actors, most of whom are fresh faces, deserve equal applause and appreciation. Perhaps not all of them can be credited with a perfect performance, but it was obvious that each had put in his or her best.