The Madras Players’ rendition of Tendulkar’s classic was competent but cried out for reinterpretation
The stage is sepia tinted. A derelict wasteland of old furniture. Picturesque but dated. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
This weekend saw a revival of Vijay Tendulkar’s signature play Silence. The Court Is In Session, directed by Vinod Anand. It premiered at the Museum Theatre in 1971, by the Madras Players under the direction of Ammu Mathew.
Forty-one years later, the Madras Players’ revisitation of Silence. The Court Is In Session explores the story on the same stage, but in a very different setting. Themes like middle-class morality, prejudice and pettiness never really get outdated. However, considering we now live in a world where ‘mommy porn’ (Fifty 50 Shades Of Grey) tops bestseller lists, 50 shades of Grey teenagers fantasise about affairs with ancient vampires (the Twilight franchise) and the phase ‘living in’ is rarely concluded by the word ‘sin’, this play and its themes have less impact than they enjoyed four decades ago.
Nevertheless, the cast performed gamely, and the performance was a skilful trip down memory lane. Even if it was more endearing than poignant.
The story’s familiar. A wandering theatre group surfaces in a quiet village. They decide to play a game, and set up a kangaroo court. Then, unexpectedly things turn sinister.
At a time when so much of contemporary theatre is minimalism and monologue, it’s satisfying to revel in a stage and cast outfitted with lavish bells and whistles: droll costumes, thick accents and obvious quirks. The actors ham it up, turning their characters into caricatures. Underlining every idiosyncrasy, and highlighting it with an indelible florescence marker. Rather than reducing it to a farce, this gives the story impact — because you’re always aware there’s something lurking under the surface.
Samant, played with a confident rakishness by Sarvesh Sridhar, kicks off the story with his strongly accented, bumbling and immensely likeable character, replete with nervous ticks and ‘Baap re baaps’. He’s sweatily dodging advances by Benare (Geetha Lakshman), a feisty school teacher. The rest of the cast includes Lawyer Sokhatme, P.C. Ramakrishna, who sparkles as usual, veering wildly from eager-to-please bit actor to vicious court attorney. There’s a sulky odd-jobs boy Balu Rokde (Akshay V. Anand), pompous Ponkshe (Arun Balachandran) and sneaky Karnik (Dinesh Devidas.) They’re followed by the captivatingly crotchety couple, Mr. and Mrs. Kashikar. He’s a crass social worker with the blustering authority of a man used to having his way, played by T.T. Srinath, who thoroughly enjoys every minute of his role, from repeatedly snubbing his stage-wife to bellowing pompously for his ‘ear pick’. Indrani Krishnaier bossy, pushy and familiar, flamboyantly condenses the gossipy neighbour, over-bearing aunt and pushy matriarch in one boisterous role.
The tension stops and starts, is indolently stretched and then speeded up. The actors manage to keep pace most of the time, with no help from the overdramatic, distracting heartbeat played in the background during the tensest scenes. The climax, with Benare lying in a vulnerable heap on the floor, is eclipsed by a smaller scene. She tries to flee, only to find the exit door of the Museum Theatre locked, creating a terrifying sense of claustrophobia. The cast gathers around like a pack of salivating wolves. For that moment, everyone feels trapped.
Themes like the sacredness of motherhood, independence of women and middle- class morality are popular with writers of pulp fiction as they are with classicists. Over the last four decades, they’ve been explored to a point of ennui. Silence. The Court Is In Session creates an interesting network of characters, who the cast do justice to. However, as the play reaches what should be its chilling climax, it’s surprisingly unmoving. Perhaps its debates aren’t that relevant anymore. Perhaps, it is important that our theatre groups start thinking about adapting and reinterpreting the classics. Or, perhaps we’ve just become an audience of cynics.