Suddenly, and quite pleasantly, Calcutta seems to have lit up on the international touring map, hosting three foreign productions or collaborations in one week — not counting those from Bangladesh, but from as far afield as the US, France and Australia. Such visits become imperative to educate artists and audiences alike about the state of the art in world theatre, without which local theatre and its appreciation remain mired in insularity.
The French Embassy and Alliance Française returned to the field of intercultural relations with Célimène et le Cardinal, dramatist-director Jacques Rampal’s award-winning debut, running since 1992 in French and translations across many countries. Rampal, who apprenticed under Goscinny of Asterix fame, took one of French literature’s all-time masterpieces, Molière’s The Misanthrope, and wrote a sequel set 20 years later, featuring only the hero and heroine. Alceste, the eponymous social critic, has now become a venerable cardinal, while Célimène, his former coquettish beloved, has settled down in a happy marriage. He, however, cannot forget her, and initiates a meeting because he insists that she needs to confess her sins to someone like him.
Rampal makes their encounter bristle with contemporary relevance. Not only does his Alceste represent orthodox religious belief bordering on fundamentalism, but borrowing from the character of my favourite Molière protagonist, Tartuffe, he turns Alceste into a fraud, too, who compromises his own vows by his evident lust for Célimène. On her part, she becomes a spokeswoman for honesty as well as for feminism, deftly tripping up Alceste with her jousting wit and ingenuity carried over from the source. In a virtuosic exhibition of poetic skill, Rampal’s alexandrine rhyming couplets match Molière’s in metrical litheness. Gaëlle Billaut and Pierre Azéma fit their roles perfectly (picture), also giving us an authentic flavour of the formal dignity of French neoclassicism in performance.
Oz Fest presented the Indo-Australian Sagara Kanyaka, another classic reduced to a two-hander, which premiered in Brisbane this year, reworked from the Delhi Ibsen Festival version in 2009 done by the Indian partner, Abhinaya Theatre Research Centre (Thiruvananthapuram). Ashley N.P. and the director, Jyothish M.G., extracted into Malayalam the quintessence of Ibsen’s semi-symbolical Lady from the Sea involving a married couple, deleting all the other characters, though of course retaining the references to the wife’s past lover who has returned, asking her to join him and leave on his ship. True, the compression takes us to the core, but it also sacrifices the rest of Ibsen’s tightly-knit craftsmanship — by no means inessential. Instead, it suggests a more spiritual interpretation that imparts to the stranger a supernatural aura, visualizing his head as a single all-seeing eye, calling the human individual back to the amniotic sea.
I liked the new Australian contribution in the form of looping sound design and live music by a quartet from Topology (Brisbane), scored by Robert Davidson, an eminent composer who mixed an evocative string section with saxophone here. I did not care for the repetitious computer animations as backdrop, which became redundant after the first ten minutes. The actors, Parvathi and Reghoothaman, often enclosed in glass cases to show their mutual isolation, tended to emote their lines excessively for my tastes, and went on for about a quarter of an hour more than necessary: the downside of Jyothish striving for a slow-motion effect à la Robert Wilson.
Subtitles in English helped us to follow both the texts above, whereas Bhopal, by Epic Actors Workshop (New Jersey) and Bond Street Theatre (New York), was written in English by Canadian playwright Rahul Varma in 2001. Based on the Union Carbide tragedy, it had moved Habib Tanvir to translate and stage it as Zahrili Hawa the following year. Paschimbanga Natya Akademi invited the American production directed by Joanna Sherman to perform on December 3, intentionally or otherwise marking the 28th anniversary, to the day, of the Bhopal catastrophe.
This play, too, used projected images — of archival footage, giving it a docudrama feel, with fictional subplots of an altruistic Canadian medical worker, a mother and her dying child, the ambitious plant manager, and an opportunistic Indian minister. After the gas leak, Carbide CEO Warren Anderson flies in and quickly departs, aided by people in high places to escape detention. Over a decade since Bhopal first appeared, and nearly three since the disaster itself, he seems to have successfully evaded justice: a telling comment on international law. Despite the danger of melodrama, Gargi Mukherjee brought genuine grief to her portrayal of the mother, and Michael McGuigan looked the spitting image of an unrepentant Anderson.