Re-shaped for a subcontinental milieu, A Walk In The Woods explores the relationship between the protagonists divided by political compulsions, yet longing to bond
Two actors write a play about two striking characters — but the roles go to older performers, because the first-time playwrights are deemed too young for them. Take heart, Rashid Faisal and Randeep Hooda! Only acute perception of history and fine craft could have so successfully reshaped a western play in the subcontinental milieu, with an authentic socio-political-cultural ethos.
In evolving this performance text, the young playwrights must have drawn from their acting experience on stage (with Motley) and screen. (Remember Faisal in My Friend Pinto, The Breadfruit Tree and Hooda in Monsoon Wedding, Bombay Talkies?)
Lee Blessing’s original Pulitzer/Tony Awards nominated play follows arms negotiators — a sardonic Russian and a punctilious American — on A Walk In The Woods between formal sessions at a Geneva summit. Cutting through the muddles and mistrust of formal negotiations during the Cold War, they establish a personal relationship, share doubts, hopes and insights. This witty, warm-hearted verbal drama asks questions about international relations, war-mongering governments whipping up rage even among peace-craving citizenry, and the role of individuals on facilitating peace.
In the Indianised version by Hooda and Faisal, the relationship between the protagonists — Pakistani and Indian diplomats — is more nuanced, more ambivalent. Rooted in the same culture and troubled history, they are mirror images divided by political compulsions, longing to bond. Balancing conflict with kinship, actors Naseeruddin Shah and Rajit Kapur make their pungent dialogues sparkle. No final solutions, but surely, the world will not be blown up as long as antagonists keep on talking, face-to-face.
A brilliant theatre / television / film actor (Dear Liar, Antigone, Sarabhai Vs. Sarabhai, Golmaal 3) and co-founder of Motley who has watched and worked with great directors, Ratna Pathak Shah can hardly be classed as a first-timer, even though A Walk In The Woods is the first play she directs. Here Shah talks about her ‘off-stage’ challenges.
What drew you to this play? Was it daunting to direct seasoned actors Naseeruddin Shah and Rajit Kapur?
This play gained more meanings and layers in being relocated in our subcontinent, than in its original Russian-American Cold War setting. I am a politically concerned person, and the play gave me the chance to explore ideas and issues, using my skills and understanding of life and theatre. The characters (Pakistani and Indian) are not polar opposites but traditionally belong to the same family now divided.
The actors contributed hugely. I’d have been less successful with newcomers. How do you get verbal exchanges between two actors across, not as boring cerebral argument but human relationship, emotions intact? After 25 shows, I think we have found it. In theatre, direction is not about coming to work on day one with every idea in place. The evolution begins with the first show. The blueprint is replaced, renewed, fleshed out in each performance. Intelligence and emotion coalesce in new ways.
Did you think of changing one of the characters to a younger woman as some productions have done?
In the India-Pakistan context, such a change would have brought in distracting gender issues, not as significant here as the political issues. I wanted to focus on what is close to my heart. In areas of conflict, whether Israel-Palestine or India-Pakistan, the more rigid we get, the less we understand. In Dubai, a woman spectator admitted that her antagonism vanished after interactions with a Pakistani neighbour. Conversation, communication and compromise are essential for any resolution.
The play ends in despondency, not resolution.
A politician did ask why. I said, “It is in your hands!” Why do governments allow wounds to fester? Teetering on the edge of extreme regression today, we have hope only as long as we keep communication channels open, even if they are messy and full of mistakes.
Have your reasons for doing theatre changed over the years?
It is a great platform for gaining clarity, alertness, craft skills, self reflection, and a way to expand your mind. My finest relationships have come from theatre. And yes, I still want to learn more about acting.
Chennai - Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall
Producer and Music Ops: Jairaj Patil
Backstage: Dwarika Prasad, Anirudh Paresh Rawal, Prakesh Amberkar
Make-up: Prakash Lad
Lighting: Vikram Kochar & Rahul Rai
Music: Vishal Bhardwaj
Rs. 600, Rs. 350 & Rs. 200. Season passes at Rs. 3,000 & Rs. 1,750 (Chennai)
Buy tickets for Chennai show here.
Facebook at facebook.com/thehindutheatre