A modern day clarion call

Theatre

By Ananda Lal
  • Published 28.10.17
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When Sartre reinterpreted the Orestes myth for his first major play, The Flies, in 1943, while working with the French Resistance against the German occupation, everyone took it as a clarion to fight the Nazis. When Pancham Vaidic revives it in Bengali as Machhi, we must read it as a call to oppose fascism reincarnated in our times in other avatars. The director, Arpita Ghosh, translates faithfully, though editing somewhat and inserting a few topical passages, like our Prime Minister's words in Zeus' mouth. In her note she identifies the subject as "humanity vs power", the latter authorized in the name of God or religion, and she posits the need for more Oresteses.

She follows Sartre in depicting Zeus as a comic conjurer at first, sporting a lightning bolt insignia on his chest, who turns into a more menacing mind-bender feeding off the fear and guilt he inculcates in mankind. His human counterpart, Aegisthus, similarly controls people, forcing citizens to mark the Day of the Dead - the celebrations of which remind me of the collective frenzy in our diverse street-corner Pujas to nascent deities sanctioned by official holidays. Zeus' magic in Sartre's Act 3 becomes a near- vishwarupa darshan - an opportunity missed by Ghosh - and virtually transforms him into the "holy terror" that Ionesco called fascism. But Orestes, Sartre's existentialist stranger/outsider, rejects Zeus (unlike Arjuna with Krishna), keeps his freedom of choice intact, accepts responsibility for his action of murdering the usurper, and saves the city by leading the Furies away as he leaves. Electra, however, succumbs to Zeus' guilt-trap.

Ghosh visualizes Machhi stunningly. At the hall doors, we meet armed soldiers ordering us to switch off cells, and nearly stumble over bodies of grotesquely-masked carrion flies lying in the aisles. This Artaudian setting shifts into the Brechtian experience of Debesh Chattopadhyay's scenography, inspired by the Berliner Ensemble model in stripping wings and backdrop from the stage so that we see right through to the rear gate (picture). Shreyan Chattopadhyay's soundscape using a buzzing drone creates the atmosphere of the plague of flies. Introduced in the flesh from the start as an omnipresent stench of death, they manoeuvre and rearrange the massive mobile centrepiece of platforms; some of them metamorphose into the Furies much later. Soumen Chakraborty's backlighting, even from outside the gate, mesmerized.

The acting seems less complex than Sartre intended, since all the characters change in course of his play. Gambhira Bhattacharya remains a babe-in-the-woods Orestes, cast against the grain of Sartre, who had interestingly specified him as older than Electra. Monalisa Chatterjee expresses greater depth in her part, suffering her breakdown midway. Shyamal Chakraborty's Zeus should appear more tormenting towards the end. Aegisthus (Shyamashish Pahari) and Clytemnestra (Tamali Choudhury), killed in Act 2, consequently register more complete portraits.

Pre-dating Macchi, Bangla Theatre Kolkata's Electra moves the central spotlight from brother to sister. Ratan Kumar Das wrote it influenced by the versions of Sophocles and Euripides, therefore more conventionally as a tragedy, and treated likewise by director Abhijit Dasgupta, with classical costumes and Greek pillars, albeit slightly shaky. Das sticks closer to Sophocles' dramatis personae, adding only the figure of Pylades, Orestes' best friend, from Euripides. Debjani Chatterjee enacts a strong, dignified yet vengeful heroine, according to tradition older than Orestes (Prateek Dutta), whose youth makes him more easily persuaded by her.