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IN A TIME OF TYRANNY AND LOVE

Theatre

Swapna-sandhani’s completion of 20 years merits a round of applause for stability under Koushik Sen in the volatile environment of Bengali group theatre, where the other Angry Young Men directors of his generation have either dropped out of groups they began with or moved into more diversified and lucrative careers. What better way to celebrate, says Sen, than with Shakespeare?

But he has more applause coming his way, for his commitment to apolitical independence of thinking. When many groups play safe thematically, become partisan mouthpieces, or pussyfoot on both sides of power opportunistically, Swapna-sandhani has the guts to consistently protest. I quote: “we have read into Macbeth … the ruthlessness to disregard and mow down all opposition. We fear that the 'disease' that plagues Scotland … has also infected our land and our times, and the infection is so deep-rooted that the simple act of replacing one leader with another will not cure it. Our version of Macbeth … does not believe in, nor accepts, the formulaic restoration of order at the end of it all, but fears the future under yet another version of tyranny.”

So, in Sen’s interpretation, neither Duncan nor his sons symbolize a virtuous reign. Duncan seems unacceptably unheroic — until we understand Sen’s scheme — while we see the true nature of Malcolm and Donalbain when they finally come into possession of the skeleton-shaped throne: one’s face contorts into a vicious visage, the other begins painting (audiences appear to like this allusion). Macbeth’s hired Murderers tamely become their pets. The ending recalls Ionesco’s scintillatingly subversive Macbett, and one wonders whether Sen supports Ionesco’s life philosophy that politics is tyranny: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Sen portrays with greater intensity than many of his previous roles Macbeth’s descent into a paranoid, bloodthirsty autocrat determined to eliminate all perceived enemies. He disagrees that Lady Macbeth had much influence on her husband, who undid himself by his own ambition. Consequently, Reshmi Sen can only play a foil to him (picture), rapidly fading after the start. Kanchan Mullick acts a stronger Macduff than usual, but eventually is forced by the new order to meekly toe the line.

The visualization of the supernatural always interests theatre critics of Macbeth. Sen definitely scores in the eerie Banquet scene, where Banquo’s ghost emerges unexpectedly from inside clusters of courtiers as they move to different places on stage. But the Weird “Creatures” in long, blonde, not-so-weird wigs (from under which peep out tufts of the performers’ natural black) remain alien, unintegrated to Macbeth’s psychosomatic disorder. The camouflage fatigues for him and the lords have, of course, become a modern-dress cliché.

The least appealing aspect is the “adaptation” by Ujjal Chattopadhaya, who has also composed Romi o Julie for Prachya, “inspired” by Shakespeare. Drama historians look bemusedly nowadays at the English Restoration as the period of “Shakespeare improved”, when playwrights freely rewrote his originals because they believed he needed literary improvement. It looks like Chattopadhaya thinks the same way. In theory, we cannot object to any classic text undergoing alterations for a production, as long as these have a logic. It just seems foolhardy to deliberately add to Shakespeare when he has already achieved perfection.

Chattopadhaya’s Macbeth is comparatively more faithful, yet he inexplicably interpolates extra scenes for Lady Macbeth and the Porter, preceding Shakespeare’s iconic introductions of them in I.v and II.iii respectively. Not surprisingly, both addenda contribute nothing other than impeding the progress of Shakespeare’s tightest tragedy.

For Romi o Julie, Chattopadhaya invents a clever metatheatrical situation in which local students read Romeo and Juliet in the classroom and two of them, Hindu and Christian, respectively, follow in the star-crossed lovers’ footsteps inexorably. But he spoils it completely by superimposing a parallel tragic romance between their professors, she a Brahmin and he belonging to a Scheduled caste. If Shakespeare, master of sub-plots, had wanted one here, surely he would have conjured it himself? He did not, because he refused to let another couple distract our attention — which is exactly the fate of Chattopadhaya’s adaptation.

Biplab Bandyopadhyay directs the young Prachya team well as exuberant teenagers, though his depiction of a “premier” college suffers from the unbelievably pedestrian teaching of Shakespeare that we see.