Bruce Guthrie arrived in India, all set to head the famed National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai (NCPA) in September 2019, and just as he was jumping headlong into the world of theatre in India, came the pandemic. So the last year as the head of theatre at NCPA has been a year of learning and unlearning the live arts as we have known it. Guthrie is an award-winning director of theatre with productions all around the world that include the likes of Constellations, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Twelfth Night for Singapore Repertory Theatre. He has directed and taught theatre to leading outfits like Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama; The Royal Academy of Music; La Salle, Singapore; National Student Drama Festival to name a few. This time, the director is bringing Sea Wall by Simon Stephens (Tony and Olivier award-winning playwright of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame) to a larger audience beyond the NCPA. Starring Jim Sarbh, the play is a monologue of Alex as he recounts his wife, daughter and his passions before delving into immense grief. NCPA in association with BookMyShow has brought this play to a digital platform, available for ticketed viewing for 48 hours, this weekend (February 27 and 28). We caught up with Bruce Guthrie ahead of the telecast of the play to discuss the future of live arts. Excerpts…
What drove you to India and the job as head of theatre at NCPA?
India was a place I always wanted to visit and explore so when the opportunity came up to direct a show at NCPA in 2018 I really jumped at it and tried to make the most of it. I have worked in a lot of countries all around the world but coming here and working in Mumbai was just fantastic. When the job came up, I got extremely excited at the prospect of working in India for a considerable period of time. The culture and the people are so incredible. The first few months that I was here felt like a baptism of fire! The Add Art Festival was going on to mark 50 years of the NCPA and we also had a huge production that was The Mirror Crack’d. I loved being in the thick of things and having lots to do!
Similarities like being lovers of theatre aside, are there any differences you have noticed in how theatre is perceived and received in India as opposed to the rest of the world?
Obviously, there are differences but the love for stories in India is unparalleled. To me, it’s rather refreshing to see people crave stories. Indian audiences are very vocal and you know if they like it or they don’t! (Laughs) I like the audience being involved, expressive and that they talk about the play with gusto. They discuss the themes and ideas of the play and how it pertains to their own life. There is a lot of intellectual exchange going on but what impresses me the most is the amount of passion that each people have for the art.
How was the lockdown for you?
The people at NCPA worked extremely hard to take care of all employees and space, which requires regular maintenance. There was indeed a lot of realigning of thoughts and we were taking it a day at a time, not knowing what the next month was going to hold. There has been a constant process of analysis and when we do reopen properly, 100 per cent to the public, how do we want things to operate and how to come back. From that point, there has been a lot of reflection. However, as most organisations have had to in the world, you have to rethink your business. In today’s world of being able to do events online and capture the digital space, performances like Sea Wall have taken a lot of planning. You essentially don’t want to compromise on the experience of the performance.
And what are your thoughts on theatre going online, which is otherwise a very interactive medium?
It is a wonderful thing if it is about giving people access — those who normally wouldn’t have said access. It expands your audience beyond geographical boundaries. In many ways, it is a wonderful alternative but it will never eclipse the live experience. Being in the room when it happens and as it happens, is different and can only happen at that moment. That communal experience is important. You can’t replicate that online.
What personally attracts you to a text and what is your subsequent directorial process like?
Most people will say the plot and the characters but for me, personally, it’s the last scene of the play that clinches the deal. That tells me if I want to do it and from then on it’s a process of walking backward till the last scene or the big reveal scene starts emerging in my mind. That’s usually my hook! In terms of process, I read the play multiple times and then begin my research. What other people said of the characters and what the characters said of themselves and other people along with what are the absolute facts of the play. I create a research list and start my reading and watching stuff. I even read other texts by the playwright to get a better understanding of their voice. The first part of it is always collecting information that is based around this play and then you start work with the creative team — lights, costume, cast, sound — and you slowly start building this world that hasn’t been done before.
'The audience response to Jim Sarbh performing Sea Wall at the Add Art Festival was extraordinary'
"Jim’s performance is very touching and quite different from anything I have seen him do before. He has a profound connection with the text and the character".
Tell us about directing Jim Sarbh in Sea Wall.
The audience response to Jim Sarbh performing Sea Wall at the Add Art Festival was extraordinary. So we obviously wanted to revisit that. It’s such an extraordinary bit of writing and gives a lesson on stoicism through a person enduring a great tragedy. But it is also a story of hope and happiness, which makes for a delicate combination. To make people laugh, think, and to move them all in a 40-minute monologue is really extraordinary.
Jim’s performance is very touching and quite different from anything I have seen him do before. He has a profound connection with the text and the character. We didn’t take breaks and cuts in between while shooting this, it was a continuous take and Jim was phenomenal even though he had to do the play four-five times in a day. He keeps digging all the time and that’s exciting. He feels his way through a play and by that I mean, aside from reading, he is at his best when you let him play to his instincts and watch as the process takes shape. I would urge everybody who has ever loved the medium of theatre to get online this weekend and catch Sea Wall. It’s a treat!