NSD’s production of Greek tragedy “The Persians” is a must-watch for its innovative sets and physical theatre

A solitary flautist in the middle of a muddy set welcomes the audience — who sit on both sides of the stage. The other two sides of the stage are inward sloping ramps, bordered by long bands of cloth attached to a bamboo structure which resembles a ship — like the triremes that fought in the Battle of Salamis. Soon, the characters of ancient Persia, tattooed and wearing Dracula-like costumes, troop down the ramps yelling out their sinister lines, tossing up the mud and chalk. Persia is going to invade Greece.

Uzbek dramatist Ovlyakuli Khodjakuli, who directed this play by National School of Drama’s second-year students, completely possessed the script, translated into Hindi by Amitabh Srivastava. Khodjakuli used a number of devices to infuse what he calls “Luciferian energy”, a physical, almost violent expression of the story.

The lines were staggered, loud and rhetorical. Dialogue, if at all, wasn’t direct. To the beats of drums the cast paraded on stage, often expressing with violent contortions and sensual eye language. Neeyati Rathod, who played Atossa, the Calypso-like queen mother with dreadlocks, was particularly natural in her performance. The expression of shock on being defeated by the Greeks and the horror of decimation of the male population was personified by Neeyati.

Another exciting device was the flying torchbearers. Actors Medini Kelamane and M. Akshatha were rigged up to the mast and flew up and down with flaming torches they periodically ignited with explosive powder.

The act was multilayered. If confusion was hyped with the fire act, the breaking of pots filled with blood depicted the horrors of war with chilling effect.

Vishala Mahale, the set designer, employed the brilliant idea of constructing a bunker beneath the set to depict hell; the slain Persian regent Darius (Ravendra Kushwaha) rises from it in a ring bordered by flaming torches. Darius delivers his lines suspended in mid-air as the Persians look in awe, fear and sorrow.

Kushwaha, who was completely possessed by his character throughout, gave a praiseworthy performance. Most of the cast seemed to have been completely seduced by Khodjakuli’s style and madness. Their theatre was total, a synergy of all the elements deployed.

Xerxes (Chirag Garg) enters — on a ramp over hell — in blood-soaked rags. He talks of his folly of war and the tragic defeat that followed. His mother Atossa cries and stretches her arms over hell, unable to reach him, even as the Persians descend into the bunker one by one. A kitschy montage of footage of the War on Terror and scenes from war movies is projected on to the bands of cloth.

The lines were, frankly, inaudible and distorted in most parts. I don’t think Khodjakuli was really interested in what they said. Rather, his focus was on how they said it in his grand burning triremes.