Ways of remembering the bard

Theatre - Ananda Lal

  • Published 28.05.16
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The quatercentenary of Shakespeare's death seems to have caught many more people's fancy than his 450th birth anniversary that passed relatively unsung two years ago. At a panel discussion the other day I had suggested that, while we acknowledge his undoubted dramatic genius, we should not let it cloud our vision to so many brilliant playwrights whose works lie neglected. The bardolatry bandwagon can have its drawbacks.

Thus, there are those who do Shakespeare just for the sake of doing Shakespeare, if not simply cashing in on the occasion, and the tiny minority who actually bring something new to the table. Athai, by the Howrah-based Natadha, belongs to the latter. Arna Mukhopadhyay adapts Othello to a Bengal village and - perhaps for the first time - makes the hero a Dalit, boyhood best friends with Anagrya (Iago), son of the zamindar. But Anagrya harbours deep envy as he could never top Athai in studies, and also had a thing for the affluent Diya (Desdemona, nicknamed Mona) who fell in love with and married Athai. Anagrya now plans to methodically destroy Athai, who has become a much-loved doctor in the village. Mukhopadhyay converts all the other characters into believable equivalents: Bratanath (Brabantio), Diya's wealthy father in Calcutta; Mukul (Michael Cassio), a friend of Athai; Radu (Roderigo), a habitually drunk youth; Mili (Emilia), a girl infatuated with Anagrya; Pinky (Bianca), a sex worker.

In a major restructuring, Athai begins with a lengthy monologue by Anagrya addressed to the audience, in which he openly announces his motives and goal. This does not leave any surprises for later, and turns the clock back to transform Iago into a medieval Vice-like figure, a tradition that Shakespeare had developed much more subtly to create a study in pathology. Mukhopadhyay then superimposes on his straightforward retro villain masks and images of Heath Ledger's Joker, which appear unnecessary and derivative of a foreign urban myth that distracts our attention from his real concern: India's Dalit issues. The overt borrowing extends to props and a soundtrack echoing that of The Dark Knight.

In the given circumstances of this part, Anirban Bhattacharya as Anagrya (picture, foreground) does not face a great challenge for a performer of his calibre. Mukhopadhyay himself as Athai (background) has a more complex deal, a model individual who has overcome caste discriminations yet simmers with undisguised anger at the inequalities his family and he had to encounter, as well as remains naïve and trusting enough not to suspect anything about his close friend. Turna Das plays Diya as one expects of the pure Desdemona, even singing Rabindrasangit at an appropriate moment, while expressing a modern feminist consciousness. A good thing is that the production does not depend on stars alone; the supporting actors deliver intense portrayals, particularly Arpan Ghoshal (Mukul), Sumit Panja (Radu), Upabel Pal (Mili) and Swagata Rit (Pinky).

Mukhopadhyay must correct the atrocious and irrelevant historical misinformation with which the directorial note and online publicity start. It connects 1609 (when it claims Shakespeare wrote Othello, most probably composed in 1603) with Sir Thomas Roe, Queen Victoria, Emperor Jahangir and the purchase of Calcutta - none of them accurate, except Roe's visit to Jahangir's court, in 1615. Anyway, Othello predates all of them.

Padatik Cultural Centre's Hindi A Midsummer Night's Dream utilized the large number of personnel available to the group by understudying people in five roles so that everyone could get a chance on stage. The guest director, Pravin Kumar Gunjan, has won national awards and appreciation for his theatre activities in remote rural Bihar. Consequently, one anticipated a different, if not political, reading from him, but saw no evidence of any awareness of recent changes in critical interpretation of this comedy, often treated now as a darker psychodrama akin to Twelfth Night and even Merchant of Venice. Instead, we found a rather conventional approach, with the usual magic and colour of standard Dream productions, augmented by music and dance. The makeup for the supernatural creatures revealed an artistic concept, whereas the costumes betrayed a randomness of design and the twinkling lights in the forest reminded me of the patterns adopted by Kunal Padhi for the same play by Padatik in 2002.

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