‘The Skeleton Woman’ – it was just about equivalent to what was expected. An almost-invincible writer’s block, a ‘nagging’ and somewhat paranoid wife, a man’s obsession with the sea, the wife’s imploring cries to get out and see the real world, the man’s weakness and stubbornness to not let go and his joy therein — it was all true, softly figurative and ironically complete. The goose, whether it talked or not, played a pivotal role and was an enigmatic connect between the man and his dead wife. As the previews said, the play stands on one leg, that of imagination, but what a strong leg it was. This was a delightfully sad but strangely hopeful story, beautifully portrayed.
The actors did have sass, specifically the ‘Skeleton Woman’ as was evident off-stage in her witticisms! Encore!
Only a framework
The stage opens with the framework of a boat on stage and that pretty much described the play for me. At the end of 70 minutes, I was still left waiting and wondering if there was more. I had only a framework. The chemistry between the two actors added nothing to the emotion I hoped to feel. As much as I wanted to connect and empathise, I couldn’t.
The attention to detail, however, was marvellous. The background noises of a restaurant, lights used to depict time and moments, the camera flashes during the interview — all added so much to the experience of the play. I loved the metaphor of the goose for the writer’s life, though I’m still wondering if having the scriptwriters as actors is an advantage or not.
It is a wonder that such a clichéd and juvenile piece of playwriting (Inuit folktale-based or not) as ‘The Skeleton Woman’ actually won the The Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award.
The only saving grace was Nayantara Kotian’s direction, which was able to conjure up certain devised (though disconnected) bits of movement and drama that made the play come alive in parts. But the various entries and exits coupled with the use of sundry props seemed, at worst, contrived.
Both the actors displayed amazing physical agility, which is a good thing by itself, but did nothing to contribute to moving the play forward (or in any other direction).
In fact, the whole play was stuck on one single, sad, flat note.
Having said that, I sincerely wish Chennai’s theatre audience (as observed at the Q&A session after the play) starts reacting to theatre at a more visual, more experiential level instead of being obsessed with meaning and text.
A writer is lost at sea while physically cooped up in his house — an empty stage, save for the frame of a sail boat. A woman walks in and arranges a bundle of furniture around the room. He spends all his time throwing blue sheets of paper, casting the net and fighting sharks. She cleans up after him and reminds him of hunger.
He hasn’t completed a single work in two years. She organises his cluttered work, labelling them ‘unfinished stories’, ‘short poems’, ‘incomplete novels’, and ‘assorted musings’.
He starts writing about a goose in a pond that finds itself thrown into the vast, merciless ocean, but unable to end the story, he digresses abruptly into a new one about a mysterious skeleton woman who rises from the sea.
With a colourful set that walks in and out with a life of its own, and excellent lights and sound, the play was a puzzle that continued to resolve its mystery way past its performance.
If, inside every writer’s mind, there exists a space which serves to both cultivate and suffocate creativity, director Nayantara Kotian creates that space in ‘The Skeleton Woman’ in ways that perhaps the words do not. By themselves, the words in the play are quirky and evocative, but often redundant; it is the directorial touch that transforms the play from what could easily have been the tedium of interior monologue to the arresting, conflict-ridden turmoil of interior dialogue. She creates levels, uses simple props and frequently pauses the play with startling visuals as though she is giving the audience time to digest it.
Best of all, she recreates the temperamental and warped nature of the mind with the inspired and often uneasy music that the imagination is endowed with. Having created such a familiar ambience, she lets the play take its course gradually. Yet, the plot is problematic. For the character of the writer, stories struggle to find an end. Almost mirroring the situation, the play speeds up to its end, conveniently copping out of showing the audience how exactly it got there. How does the writer find the courage, motivation and strength to finally finish his story? The play simply cuts to the final moments of his story, where the problem has been resolved, and one cannot help but wonder how and why the writer even gets there. It poses a problem and shows its resolution, but the journey is entirely missed.