Freud of Theatre holds Delhiites spellbound

The Delhi Ibsen Festival, which featured seven plays of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen this week, gave troupes a chance to experiment and adapt his works for contemporary audiences. The professional edition of the festival featured three plays by foreign troupes and one collaboration between a Polish director and a Kolkata troupe.

These included two by Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Niswan Cultural Action Group and Uzbekistan’s Ilkhom Theatre. Karachi’s Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women’s Movement) presented a South Asian proletarian interpretation of Ibsen’s A Doll House. Ibsen’s play, radical at its time, culminates in the female protagonist walking out of an unequal marriage.

The Karachi troupe attempted to explain how a woman in a conservative society is driven out of an institution like marriage that has come to define her existence. Sakina, the adapted character of Mrs. Linde, a friend of the protagonist Nora, is transformed in this adaptation named Gurrya ka Ghar.

Explains director Anwer Jafri, “Sakina is a working class woman who has walked out of her marriage and her family is after her life. She finds sanctuary in a woman’s home where Tehmina (Nora’s) character works.”

Sakina’s narration helps Tehmina understand her own situation and propels her to leave home and find herself. Though Sakina’s perspective differs entirely from Tehmina, the audience realises that the patriarchal system cuts across classes. Violence only varies in intensity, he explains.

The play’s producer and the actress who plays Shakina – Sheema Kirmani – says that her character is based on the stories of real women who have faced domestic violence. “We do workshops with people who’ve faced violence. Their (working class) stories, mannerism and language are very different.”

A practice in Indian theatre which Sheema would like to mainstream in Pakistan’s theatre is the incorporation of folk theatre styles. “It’s a lot more risky performing plays there than here in India. We take our street plays to villages and low income areas. Most often mosques even announce our arrival. But sometimes they ask people to stay away from us.”

She adds that their plays are often controversial but “it is good to provoke this dialogue. It’s important to talk even under threats to our lives.”

Tashkent’s Ilkhom Theatre presented Ghosts which was commissioned for the festival. The play in Russian with English super titles was directed by one of Central Asia’s most popular dramatists Ovlyakuli Khodjakuli, known from his dynamic sets and artistic theatre.

Ilkhom is an independently funded theatre – the first in the former Soviet Union – founded in 1976. It has remained so by staging “non political modern plays on contemporary life with humour and sarcasm,” says Ovlyakuli.

“The theatre has stayed the way it is despite changes in the political system. We have never faced political or religious pressure as we never choose sides. It is an open game on an open stage with the audience and our aim is never to offend. At the same time, theatre brings out problems that people face in the personal lives,” he explains.

That said, the truth is the Ilkhom’s founder Mark Weil was murdered in 2007, for staging a play on the misuse of the Koran.

Ghosts is one of Ibsen’s most controversial plays that shocked censors and critics alike, when it was first staged in 1882. Ovlyakuli’s presentation maintains this radical spirit of Ibsen. He said that after the first screening in Tashkent, before coming to India, a critic wrote that his soul was pained, yet he watched the play with pleasure.

“It is a whole remodelling of the play. It is not linear narration. It moves forwards and backwards. There is a (parallel) language of movement in the way people speak,” he says speaking through translator Durin Cazac who also played Jakob Engstrand.

Smitten by Greek tragedies, Ovlyakuli said the play had been on his mind for the last three years, “The idea of people succumbing to their most savage instincts frightened and fascinated me. The play almost pushes the audience away. But their sinful urge makes them stay on as they want to peek into the secrets of these people. There’s a reason why Ibsen is called the Freud of Theatre.”

The Delhi Ibsen Festival is organised by Dramatic Art and Design Academy and The Royal Norwegian Embassy