With a minimalist set and a competent cast Madras Players’ Tughlaq brought alive the political stereotypes through eras

You can’t escape the kings. The glittery sets, the flamboyant costumes, the brazen intrigue. Plays about royalty, court politics and history are a staple of college and school theatre. (There probably isn’t a single costume cupboard in this country that doesn’t have a red velvet coat, kitschy tiara and ridiculously skinny gold tights.) Hence when the Madras Players decided to stage Tughlaq, their challenges went beyond just bringing a script to life. They also had to battle amateur collegiate stereotypes, infuse freshness to a tired oft-performed play and find a way to make it relevant to blasé audience.

Their answer was to take a relatively minimalistic route, but stay true to the play’s script, tone and style. After all, this is a script written by one of their own: Girish Karnad was actively involved with the Madras Players in the 1960 and 70s. Resisting the modern trend of jazzing things up by rewriting and reinterpreting old stories, they relied on a competent cast and earnest retelling, supported by countless rehearsals and some nifty work on sound and lights.

Written by Karnad in 1964, Tughlaq is the story of a wildly eccentric, impractically idealistic and unexpectedly cruel Sultan of the 14th Century Delhi. It’s based on Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq, who ruled for 26 violent years. Undeniably brilliant, he constantly struggled between his ideals and ambition. Perfect material for theatre, really.

Admittedly, Tughlaq’s intrigues and counter intrigues tend to conform to Indian ‘court play stereotypes,’ as alive today on school stages as they on the pages of a Tinkle comic. It’s flush with stock characters: wicked courtiers, scheming friends and a troubled step mother. At the same time, it deals with ambition and disillusionment in politics, a subject that’s as relevant today as it was in 1964, the year Nehru died, when the play was written. The opening scene shows Delhi’s citizens grumbling “What this country is coming to” could have happened today. As an old man on stage says, “I have been alive a long time, seen many sultans. But I never thought I would live to see a thing like this…”

As the play, directed by Vinod Anand, unfolds however, you’ll realise Tughlaq makes even modern politicians look munificent. Like almost all leaders, he starts with great ideals and a benevolent vision for the city. Then, slowly but surely, he descends into unpredictable madness, taking Delhi down with him, turning it into a ‘honey comb of diseases.’ A ‘kitchen of death.’

Yohan Chako does a spirited job playing Tughlaq, who is at once kind and cruel, wise and irrational, deferential and headstrong. He is supported by a relatively small, but competent cast, which gamely keeps up the energy despite occasional dips and hiccoughs. Theatre of this genre is usually equipped with massive casts, expensive sets and plenty of bling. However set designer Victor Paulraj chooses a more austere route. The stage features just three steps, topped by a stark throne. On one side there is a chess set, a metaphor for all the games about to unfold. The rest of the drama is supplied by lights and music. It works when they’re operated with restraint. Unfortunately during the murder scenes, the stage flashes red with torrid excitement, dangerously close to a B Grade horror flick.

P.C. Ramakrishna is compelling, playing a dignified, troubled, ethical historian struggling to guide Tughlaq towards doing the right thing, even while his other advisor, the endearingly wicked Najib (D. Ramachandran) pulls the other way. They play off each other delightfully. Tehzeeb Katari, as the troubled step mother adds a splash of colour, pulling off a role that demands an emotional Queen with a heart of steel. Other notable performances include Arun Balachandran as fiery, conniving, gripping Ratan Singh. Cheerful, unpredictable Aziz, played breezily by Roshan Mathew whose slapstick-style scenes with Azam (Akshay Anand) bring glimmers of light into an otherwise dark play. And Arjun Chidambaram, who plays all the bit roles — announcer, guard, door keeper — with solemn intensity.

Characters evolve over the almost two hours that the play runs. The tempo increases towards the end. Tughlaq gets more power hungry, frustrated and cruel. Characters are killed in cold blood. There’s hope and despair, love and anger, faith and fear.

In the end Tughlaq proves that the allure of twisted politics never fades. Fortunately neither does the human need to find hope in every situation.