As an ode to a playwright, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan falls short

The first English play in Ranga Shankara’s 2013 edition of its annual fest was, fittingly, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. Girish Karnad, whose achievements as a playwright the theatre space is celebrating through Samprati, had written the play in 1997 for BBC to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence. Based on the freedom fighter’s record of his dreams, it takes one through his final days as well as the initial struggle for freedom from colonial rule.

Indianostrum’s staging of the play, however, lacked the promise that the story carried. A mash up of the troupe’s own Furious and Karnad’s play, it did justice to neither. Set in 1997 Srirangapatnam, it took cues from recent history as well, including the BBC radio drama itself in the plot.

Four civilians and two officers listening to the radio play receive news of a bomb blast in Bangalore. Gripped in a climate of fear, the entrance of an unidentified man unhinges them and they proceed to extract ‘justice’.

After a slightly confusing albeit well-received introduction in the foyer of Ranga Shankara, the play plods through its 100 minutes. The inconsistencies in character and storyline are glaring: the radio drama conveniently pauses to allow the characters to speak, while the humorous opening scene bore little relevance to the remainder of the performance. The characters in the police station have little or no background stories and throughout, there was a barely restrained and out of place sensual and violent undertone. At one point in the production, as Tipu Sultan made his entrance, several members of the audience identified him as Karnad. As he sat silently in the eye of the storm that was the play, his troubled expression said it all. And when he sang, it was as much a breath of fresh air for the audience as it was a cry for help.

But for what it does get wrong, there are some things that Indianostrum does get right. Their attempt to make Karnad’s play relevant with the frame story is laudable, though unnecessary. And the choice to address issues like mob justice through the story of a man betrayed by his own people is a brave one. At one point during the mock trial, the prosecutor refers to Tipu as a monster. Against the backdrop of the Mumbai attacks, Shahid and President Pranab Mukherjee’s record for sending convicts to the gallows, the question of who the monster is here is certainly an important one. Unfortunately, such saving graces are few and far apart, unable to redeem the production.

Whether Indianostrum’s The Dreams of Tipu Sultan worked as a standalone play is debatable, but as an ode to the playwright, it certainly falls short. As one theatre personality remarked, it was simply not Karnad, it was a poor salutation. At the beginning of the play, a narrator stands on a soap box and announces herself to be part of a fictional troupe, Scriptfirst. One wonders whether, had the production followed its own credo, the result would have been different.

Always current

In a fitting curtain fall to the Ranga Shankara festival Samprati, local troupe Rafiki performed one of Girish Karnad’s first playwriting successes to a packed auditorium. Written when he was 22 years old, Yayati stems from a story of infidelity and politics in the Mahabharata. Although penned in 1960, the story finds as much resonance today as it did in ancient India. And that’s just what Rafiki attempted to show us over the course of 90 minutes.

Five performers stood facing the audience, taking turns to recite bits of intertwining monologues. Unable to bear the restraints of their character and space, they begin to act out, and with the smirk of an inside joke, the spell is broken and the stage cleared. Over the next one-and-a-half hours, the actors oscillated between their traditional roles and then some. However, even for those uninitiated to Karnad or the Indian epic, the story was easy enough to follow.

King Yayati marries Devayani the daughter of priest Shukracharya, after rescuing her from a well. He later embarks on an affair with her friend and slave Sharmishtha, who he decides to take as his second wife. Upon Yayati’s decision to formalize their relationship, a hurt and angry Devayani leaves the palace. Shukracharya, angered at this insult, puts the curse of old age on Yayati. Because his daughter owes her life to him, he amends it with a single rider: another man may offer his youth in exchange for Yayati’s.

The Ashish D’Ebrio directorial stayed largely true to this story, even in the scenes where it stuck a contemporary spin on it. Regrettably, the pop culture references and over-the-top performances in these frequent segues took away more than they added to the plot. From cosmetic brand taglines to jingles, the fit was forced and futile. Unlike in Rafiki’s earlier production, the collaboration with Perch, How to Skin A Giraffe, where the songs and humorous dialogue were the cherry on the cake, these segments bordered on being disruptive.

The performers, however, showed little signs of disturbance in performance, moving smoothly from one scene to the next. Against the backdrop of six large floor-to-ceiling length newspaper collage banners, and with the able aid of coloured and selective lighting, their performances were attention grabbing. Devayani as the wronged wife and Puru as the conflicted son stood out while Sharmishtha, ironically, had an easier go of the songs than of her dialogue.

Rafiki’s Yayati bore particular relevance to today’s socio-political climate. Dynastic politics and the congruent obsession for youth were as prevalent then as they are now, something that the troupe went out of their way to show. The production was similar to a retake of a modern fairytale, a reimagining of the story of Yayati in a contemporary world. The only question is, was that necessary?