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THE DEATH OF PROGRESS

Theatre

Three cheers for Emami — one for their current Cultural Fiesta, and two in advance in the hope that they step into the vacuum created by the withdrawal of major sponsors from annual theatre festivals in the city. We do not get to view as many productions from the rest of India as we used to a decade ago.

Ace Productions’ Death of a Salesman from Mumbai merits a long review not on its own strengths — indeed, it has too many conspicuous weaknesses — but because of the key text itself. I teach two compulsory plays to undergraduates studying the modern period, this one and Waiting for Godot, both consistently rated as the most important of the 20th century by juries of critics in the West. If anything, Arthur Miller’s classic has peaked in its relevance to India now, what with our unquestioning headlong rush to embrace capitalism as “progress”, so that we actually see Willy Loman clones around us, running themselves into the sand. Yet nobody in Calcutta has revived it since Nandikar prophetically did so in the previous century, as Pheriwalar Mrityu.

Alyque Padamsee, however, noted its immediate applicability, which motivated him to direct it. In a rare case of textual fidelity, he has not adapted, contemporized or Indianized it, permitting us to make the connections for ourselves. His editing, too, stays within a reasonable range, though I think he should have retained in full two crucially significant sequences: the opening of Act 2, where Willy prepares to ask his boss for a raise while talking to Linda about all their household goods needing repair or replacement; and his repeatedly admonishing Linda not to mend her stockings, disclosing to us his guilt about his extramarital affair.

Aged eighty-plus, Padamsee carries himself persuasively as Willy in his sixties, hunched and loping around unsteadily, staring vacantly into space whenever his memories break through and disrupt his present — as Miller explained elsewhere, “the kind of man you see muttering to himself on a subway”. But he overdoes the mumbling; we lose half of Willy’s lines because he does not articulate them. Regardless of characterization, audiences must hear what someone has to say. Sabira Merchant makes a warm, motherly Linda, but by chopping her long speeches Padamsee does not give her nature as a strong woman adequate space. In the opposite vein, by not allowing an otherwise impressive Neel Tolani (Biff) to break down when Miller specifies it, Padamsee loses opportunities to emphasize Biff’s sensitivity. Jim Sarbh (Happy) and Farrokh Mehta (Charley) act their parts with depth, unlike Farid Currim (Ben), whom Padamsee confines to two downstage corners in spectral blue spotlights every time he appears, looking like a runaway from vampire movies instead of Willy’s role model.

Beyond the script, Padamsee takes some very strange directorial decisions. To have Tolani and Sarbh mouth American twangs whereas the others do not makes no sense at all. He should remove attempted accents entirely. His much-vaunted special effects consist mainly of immature projections on the backdrop: trees dissolving into skyscrapers, and preceding the flashback, sea waves with the caption “13 Years Ago”, followed later by the same waves with a legend announcing our return to present times. This, to today’s spectators fed on a staple diet of nonlinear screen narratives? A similar poverty of imagination affects the soundtrack, which drearily drones the instrumental portions of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” at irritatingly regular intervals.

A year after Salesman premiered in 1949, the Arena Stage started up in Washington DC, one of the many trailblazing American theatre initiatives following World War II. It not only continues operating, but also branched out into extension programmes, one of which came to Calcutta in 2012 and revisited us, thanks to the American Center. “Voices of Now” workshopped with high-school and college students to make a social difference and presented the improvised results in two very short performances titled Breaking Through and Train of Thoughts, stressing the stressful lives that young adults lead here. Having seen their work last time, I suggest that American Center separate the participants into two groups of first-timers and those already initiated, so that the latter do not have to repeat what they had done previously, since they should forge ahead, never feel a sense of stagnation, as I did with some of the themes.