Artistic explorations across genrescultures need to be fuelled by creative ambition if we are to experience art to its fullest. Devina Dutt underlines where ‘Crossings’ fell short.
“Crossings”, variously described as dance theatre, musical play or “exploration”, delves into the fractured self of one of Shakespeare's few iconic female characters, Lady Macbeth. Conceptualised, written and directed by Vikram Iyengar seven years ago, the piece has been through several changes. In its latest avatar, staged in Mumbai recently, four dancer-performers using primarily the idiom of Kathak, supported by live Indian folk and classical music with some fine singing by Nageen Tanvir, set about to explore the many facets of Lady Macbeth.
Unlike Iyengar's unwieldy production of “Equus” which had made a disappointingly token use of Kathak, in “Crossings”, the form is better integrated into the performances which follow a text culled from Shakespeare's Macbeth depicting the run up to the welcoming and murder of Duncan and its tragic consequences.
The play opens with four performers driven in different directions criss-crossing the stage, coming together and dispersing repeatedly, a reflection of Lady Macbeth's inner strife. The sprinkling of Kathak becomes more pronounced as the performers prepare for the arrival of Duncan. This becomes the cue for familiar celebratory scenes of dancing women and pirouettes borrowed from Kathak. The rising conflict and the drifting of Lady Macbeth towards her terrible decision and deed, her famed unsexing of her self is depicted using the language of dance, and viewers are treated to some attractive stage moments. An elaborate shringaar sequence is quite effectively switched from its moorings in classical Indian aesthetics to the altered context of a predatory murderer adorning herself for the kill.
When an implacable Lady Macbeth emerges after having overcome her conflicts, we are able to make some quite straightforward connections to the cult of Shakti. All through this, there is plenty of scattering of marigolds, water, fire and indeed, red kum kum powder. In its best moments the production allows us to follow the duels which ravage Lady Macbeth's mind, their theatrical impact heightened with help from the distinctive language and symbolism of Kathak and a smattering of other classical dance forms.
But about halfway through, the realisation dawns that this production only intends to cover treaded ground. A sense of disquiet about the sum total and essential value of the production begins to grow when you realise there is not much lying in wait beyond the notes of a frustratingly perfected mediocrity that have been set up and achieved early on. The diaphanous lilac curtains and cracked mirrors with lamps, flames and shadows are a reminder of how a spurious and trite notion of visual appeal is taking over the contemporary theatrical sensibility today. The piece continues to unfold within the pleasant and established clichés of the performance stage.
When a creative exploration is announced, sensitive spectators expect to experience something that they could not have reached unaided. The mere fact of looking at Shakespeare through Kathak will yield some felicitous performance leads, as it does in this case too, but what then? Creative explorations also suggest risk-taking with the possibility of some unexpected subversive gains. A cross genre production working across two cultures which does not take itself or the audience out of its comfort zone, can only offer a pale and limited glimpse of the full shock of the art experience.
Sadly, what we see in “Crossings” is a literal rendering which merely applies one form to the other and therefore remains an exercise stuck in the banal depths of tautology.
Decades after Indian theatre first began to experiment with classical and folk forms of Kathakali, Kudiyattan and Yakshagana among others, and years after landmark productions like Manipur-based director, Lokendra Arambram's “Macbeth—Stage of Blood”, this ultimately predictable production from a younger director is disappointing.
Arambram's “Macbeth” had used Manipur's martial arts form Thung Ta, interweaving into it a deep understanding of the unique mythology of his state and a personal vision which had given the text a new shape, meaning and full bodied resonance.
Clearly, working across genres and cultures is a venture that needs to be fuelled by creative ambition, intelligence and courage. This is best seen in the films of British filmmaker, poet, writer and artist Derek Jarman who created brilliantly inventive films based on texts ranging from Shakespeare to Christopher Marlowe's Edward II. His version of The Tempest, brings together elements of Baroque art, Gothic melodrama and some campy musicals to create a stunning and original work invested with ideas on politics, art and history while retaining its irreverence and individuality. Jarman used vastly different elements to craft his films, working through the imagined polarities of classical and street art, polemics and humour, high and low, with a brilliantly opaque personal vision to create unforgettable and great art.
In an era of declining interest in the arts, with the wearing thin of critical appreciation, a cross-genre “exploration” which stays with only what it can easily achieve, succeeds in strengthening the stultifying complacency and inanity which grips large sections of the Indian culture industry today.
There are other more mundane problems. Displaying excessive conventional histrionics, the lead actress Anubha Fatehpuria, lacks the wisdom or finesse needed to temper her act with transitional moments and is unchecked by her director. Her heavy footed hamming and stamping about on stage is tedious, particularly since it is accompanied by a severely limited range of stock expressions, with a glazed gaze fixed in mid distance, declaring text all the while and never speaking it. An embarrassingly crude attempt at delivering a powerhouse performance, it is a sad comment on performance standards today that bad acting slips by undetected, masquerading as “powerful” acting. Unfortunately, as the production progresses, other dancers too contribute to the build up of ungainly moments and make it impossible for us to leave with any sense of residual delicacy.