The Delhi Ibsen Festival featured interesting combinations of Ibsen’s plays with those of others

The first part of the Delhi Ibsen Festival, which concluded on Sunday, featured five plays by college and university troupes. The drama societies of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ramjas College, St. Stephen’s College, Lady Shri Ram (LSR) College and Maitreyi College gave very professional performances, all of them confidently scaling the Mandi House bar.

Two particularly interesting experiments were by Stephen’s and LSR. Both colleges incorporated plays in addition to Ibsen’s in their performances. Fusion is a tricky job and it speaks of the courage of a troupe to attempt one. A satisfactory combination retains the crux of the main playwright’s argument; a good one takes the dialectic of the primary playwright forward.

Stephen’s Shakespeare Society and Shakespeare Sabha presented Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” (1882), certainly one the greatest works in theatre. Ibsen’s plot pivots on Dr. Stockmann, who goes against society to expose the truth behind a flawed public project. Stephen’s took Stockmann out of the equation, and had the “actor-directors” conceive individual narratives of seven other important characters. To this they added Egyptian writer Tawfik al-Hakim’s “River of Madness” (1937).

The similarity between the two plays is water — the public baths in “An Enemy of the People” and the river in Hakim’s Absurdist play. Both authors share contempt for the herd-like majority and attach great virtue to the belief of an individual.

The strongest and immortal line in Ibsen’s play is one of Stockmann’s quotes: “...the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.” This grain of thought is popular in Indian cinema and theatre and ingrained in the Indian psyche with songs like Tagore’s “Ekla Cholo” (1905).

It was doubly hard for the troupe to live up to the expectations of an educated Indian audience which is aware of Satyajit Ray’s “Ganashatru” (1989), an adaptation of Ibsen’s play. While the technique, acting, lights — the mise en scene — was perfect, their expression of Ibsen’s rebellion and Hakim’s sarcasm was weak.

LSR presented a play titled “Burn”, a combination of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” (1890) alongside John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” (1956) and director Neel Chaudhuri’s “Nightswimming”. The director played on the objects of creation and affection, a similar thread in the three plays. Ibsen’s Gabler burns the manuscript of her husband’s competitor; Osborne’s Alison loses her unborn child and; Chaudhuri’s Janhavi urges Mihir, whom she secretly loves, to preserve his love letter that gets his girlfriend Natasha kicked out of school.

Like the detachment of Stockmann by Stephen’s, male characters are invisible in “Burn”. The female characters have dialogues with them, but the characters do not physically exist on stage. The three acts progress in sync one after the other in three corners of the stage. This was the high point of the performance.

The play closes with Janhavi urging an invisible Mihir to preserve the love letter. In a historical progression, Janhavi attempts to take Ibsen’s dialectic ahead.