Return to darkness

Theatre - Ananda Lal

  • Published 28.01.17
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Bengali theatre has revived significant adaptations from the 1980s of two international classics dating to the mid-20th century: Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit (1956). Both originally carried extraordinary political reverberations regarding the collective betrayal by a community of its own members. Audiences can judge for themselves how much of the politics remains applicable at present in these Indianizations.

Sudipto Chatterjee of Spectactors returns to his script of Agsuddhi, which Ramaprasad Banik's group Chenamukh staged in 1984. Chatterjee reminds us of the horrific incident that had sparked his imagination - villagers in Puruliya burning women on suspicion of witchcraft - and how Banik had helped in its creation by bringing The Crucible to his attention. Miller, of course, set his tragedy in Salem, Massachusetts, during the notorious trial of "witches" in 1692. But everyone recognized that he used the historical context as an objective correlative referring to the McCarthy witchhunt of American Communists and their sympathizers after the Second World War.

By transplanting it into an equivalent situation in our times and climes, Chatterjee gave greater importance to the terrifying Indian reality of branding women as witches and then doing away with them. Concomitantly, the immediacy of the social violence took precedence over Miller's distancing effect, in a Brechtian manner, of alluding to contemporaneous right-wing actions through the Salem prism. In my opinion, therefore, only a cultivated viewer will relate Agsuddhi intellectually to the metaphorical witchhunts taking place in India today, a connection which no doubt Chatterjee intends.

But Chatterjee follows Miller's structure closely, indigenizing the circumstances act by act, except for one major switch, that John Proctor's maid in Crucible becomes the coalminer Chhotu's sister here. As director now, Chatterjee instils and sustains the right Puruliya accent in every actor, and supervises a powerful ensemble performance (picture) where no one can individually steal the show. Nevertheless, one must mention Krishnendu Adhikari (the staunch rationalist Chhotu), Srabasti Ghosh (his accused wife) and Ipsita Debnath (the main identifier of the "witches") in the leading roles. Triguna Shankar's innovative set of grey monoliths, necessarily lightweight for reasons of mobility, requires more stability to prevent them from swaying during scenes. Dinesh Poddar designs another of his emotionally-charged lighting schemes.

Felicitated by Nandikar at their National Festival, Soumitra Chatterjee presented Phera, which he adapted from Swiss-German dramatist Dürrenmatt for the commercial stage in 1987. His daughter Poulami has resurrected it for the group Shyambazar Mukhomukhi. Here, too, the locale is a remote, impoverished village in Bengal (a small town in The Visit), whose inhabitants happily welcome home a long-lost native who has now risen to the status of a celebrity multi-millionairess. Unfortunately for them, she has returned with a purpose: she offers financial support to all if they kill her one-time lover, a villager who had abandoned her when she had become pregnant, driving her into prostitution.

Critics see in Dürrenmatt's grotesque "tragic comedy", definitively produced by Peter Brook in 1960, an echo of Nazism because the residents, after at first righteously rejecting the proposal, gradually get co-opted and plot the murder. Besides, big money can buy anything. Dürrenmatt, and Chatterjee, depict quite authentically the corrupting force of capital and the completely self-serving and cynical way in which people drop their moral codes to suit their opportunism. However, Chatterjee violates his source by altering the conclusion. Dürrenmatt sceptically allows the lady to leave with the coffin, untouched by the calamity she has wrought, but Chatterjee sentimentally makes her commit suicide beside her lover's corpse, her cycle of revenge ended, the order of justice restored.

Poulami Chatterjee directs the large team expertly, ensuring good performances from even the smallest characters, for example in the noisy opening scene on the railway platform. She herself portrays the lady with a perfect air of luxurious boredom, though in Dürrenmatt's vision she should look more ostentatious and parodic, a body assembled entirely out of various prosthetics. In contrast to her artificiality, Debshankar Halder enacts her target in a subdued, natural style, never playing to the gallery. Soumitra Chatterjee appears in a relatively minor part, as the village doyen, but with his typical ease.

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