Calcutta finally got the chance this month to see two productions in English that had earned national exposure some time ago. Our very own Padatik had inaugurated the Delhi Ibsen Festival last year with the classic The Master Builder, but curiously, had not treated home viewers to it so far. And Poor-Box’s Indianization of the phenomenal international success story, The Vagina Monologues, running in Mumbai for over a decade, came to town at long last.
Padatik has invited foreign guests to collaborate before, but this project with Poland’s Wlodzimierz Staniewski (a Jerzy Grotowski alumnus) proved meaningful because it gave the current repertory the valuable opportunity to interact with an eminent European director and thus to realize Western theatre anew. One could feel palpably that Staniewski had stretched to the utmost the abilities of Padatik’s top echelon, which any actor worth their salt would want from a director, excavating reserves of energy and expression that they never knew they possessed. I found this quality most evident in the blood-sweat-and-tears pairing of Kunaal Padhy in the title role of the renowned architect (representing artistic genius) and Anubha Fatehpuria as the young woman less than half his age who captivates him (picture). If the acting ideal is to transform oneself unrecognizably, these two achieved it.
Europe, of course, has done Ibsen to death in the faithful and realistic idioms, so one can understand Staniewski’s postmodern desire to compress the play into 70 minutes, searching for its essence. Moreover, Master Builder belongs to the quartet of Ibsen’s last masterpieces that reached beyond, stylistically, into expressionism and symbolism. Nevertheless, I think Staniewski’s method robbed Indians — most of whom do not know how the drama develops, inexorably — of the psychological characterization, insight into human relations and depth of dialogue that the full text can still provide. To drop half the speeches is to jettison half the riches.
This process undercut the others’ portraits, even though each gave their best. Sanchayita Bhattacharjee (Mrs Solness), Mahmud Alam (their quiet doctor) and Janardan Ghosh (the assistant architect) distilled their reduced attributes admirably, but Debjaya Sarkar (the bookkeeper, who rarely spoke) and Karanjit Singh (the apprentice) had hardly anything left to work with. Soumik Chakraborty’s set of giant doors evoked locked secrets and inner lives, yet their grandeur contradicted Staniewski’s own simplicity in his Gardzienice village commune where he famously practises “theatre ecology”, grounding it in local culture and “gathering” with audiences, which he strangely did not apply here, except for superficially adopting Kathak.
How apt it seemed for Master Builder, about a megalomaniac who used women (so many such men still around today), to precede by a week the feminist Vagina Monologues written 100 years later. Eve Ensler’s celebrated, much-translated sociological event draws packed houses for the wrong reasons, but it has made a major contribution to greater awareness of female sexuality worldwide since 1996, and now has also joined the movement protesting violence against women. Theatrically, it best exemplifies the postmodern engagement with monologues as a playwriting device. It has had its fair share of controversies, too, around the appropriateness of some interviews, notably “Little Coochi Snorcher”.
The mother-son team of Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal and Kaizaad Kotwal have directed the text closely, other than cutting a few sequences and deftly adapting some to the Indian situation along with requisite accents: the Jewish New Yorker in “The Flood” becomes a Parsi; “Because He Liked to Look at It” receives a typically Mumbaiyya delivery. This made me wonder whether they ever considered converting the Bosnian monologue to one much nearer home, like the lakhs of Bangladeshi women horribly brutalized during their Independence war. On the other hand, the sit-down front-facing posture of all five performers, together with microphones and scripts (which they did not need but gave the impression of read-out transcripts), detracted from theatrical impact. Ensler does not specify it, and a looser mise-en-scene should free the actresses to act better, when women’s liberation rather than restriction is the point.
Mody-Kotwal and Dolly Thakore took the older parts, of the Parsi lady and the childbirth episode respectively, bringing a reticence and dignity that contrasted with the naturally younger ebullience of Avantika Akerkar, who made the maximum of her confined position in the chair, and Dilnaz Irani, who rocked the rafters of Birla Mandir above with her variegated moans. Vagina Monologues illustrated perfectly what the stage can accomplish that the screen still can’t.