Simmerings of political discontent have begun to agitate Bengali theatre again, just as they have done periodically, whenever the circumstances demanded it. Some of these may specifically interest students of classical European history and literature, for the troupes in question have found what they want to say in the life stories of icons from antiquity, rewriting what happened in the past to raise words of warning today.
After several years, Chandan Sen returns to centrestage with Natya Anan’s Caesar, fulfilling our expectations of his potential, which somehow always seemed to miss out on an adequate platform. He took the matter into his own hands for his most ambitious project yet, basing this biographical drama partly on the 2002 American miniseries titled Julius Caesar and partly on Shakespeare. The TV script by Peter Pruce and Craig Warner won praise for its historical accuracy, carried over into the Natya Anan production, which therefore has an educational component as well.
Of course, Sen does not have the breathing space of multiple episodes, even though he stretches his play over 150 minutes. So we do not get to see Caesar’s teenage scrape with Sulla, his first wife Cornelia, or his capture by the pirates. He appears as a mature man with a grown-up daughter, Julia, who suggests that she marry Pompey so that her father can lead Pompey’s legions to Gaul. Julia also notices his loneliness after Cornelia’s death, and actively encourages his relationship with a young Calpurnia.
The rest is more familiar history: Caesar’s rise to consul, Pompey’s strategies against him, his elevation to dictator and defeat of Pompey, his affair with Cleopatra, his defeat of Cato and return to Rome. After this point — the interval — Shakespeare’s tragedy takes over and, understandably, cannot receive full justice in the time that remains. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is of a fair and faithful biography in which Caesar repeatedly emerges as a heroic yet sensitive man. It resists somewhat Sen’s political interpretation juxtaposing democracy and dictatorship, and his message that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
One probably cannot find a better Bengali actor for this role than Sabyasachi Chakraborty (picture), looking every bit the tall, rugged warrior, while also laid low by Caesar’s weakness, epilepsy. His naturalism is such that at the performance I witnessed, I thought he had a severe cough that affected his voice. When I sympathized backstage, Chakraborty said that the director had instructed him to wheeze in this manner, since soldiers had to contend with dust on the battlefield!
Others deliver well, too. Jibesh Bhattacharya creates a cold, calculating Pompey. In virtually a cameo, Shantilal Mukherjee comes on very strong as a dynamite Antony. Chandan Sen enacts a thoughtful Brutus. Julia is a livewire, Bindia Ghosh peaking hysterically when, pregnant, she realizes her husband’s betrayal of her father. Mishka Halim depicts a Calpurnia torn between many emotions.
Sen exposes two shortcomings. As a dramatist, he indulges the bad habit of composing alternating scenes with subaltern commentary from an old man and two slaves, which become thoroughly predictable. As a director, he must improve the blocking of the assassination, where Caesar incredibly staggers in slow motion from the centre to Brutus in a corner, with everyone else stock-still and no aides rushing in.
Theatre Nandik, in Kanchrapara, is another of those groups working regularly outside the big city. Their Socrates is not Mohit Chattopadhyaya’s drama, but a script by Himadri Shekhar Dey and Partha Pratim Bhattacharyya, inspired by Sisir Kumar Das. It opens with a judge receiving threats for expressing his political opinions. Socrates’ character and personality stay the same as in history, but he lives in our times and gets into trouble for inciting youth to ask awkward questions. The predominantly young male cast wear contemporary dress, interchange parts, sing, and move mobile set pieces around to switch locales. Niladree Bhattacharya’s direction has the feel of a workshop production, but needs to inform viewers more about Socrates’ life and trial that they do not know, so that the relevance becomes obvious.