With eclectic pieces that refused to be categorised, this year’s Hamara Shakespeare was a marriage of lethal elements.
A festival like the recent Hamara Shakespeare, in Chennai with its multicultural connotations, tends to attract tired arguments about ‘authenticity’. However, to the festival’s credit, all the plays this year were eclectic pieces that didn’t fall into trite categories like ‘Indianised Shakespeare’. They reminded us rather, in their variety, that ‘Indian’ doesn’t mean a single, identifiable essence.
The festival opened with “Almost Twelfth Night”, featuring puppet-actors. On a makeshift stage, tiny puppets with grand-sized emotions danced their way through the plot, entrancing us with their liveliness. The image of Malvolio (Manish Haldar), shaking and brandishing a kitchen knife, was one of the best moments of the night. Gender boundaries were a theme throughout. Climbing a gate, dressed as a pageboy, Viola exclaims: “Cesario can do so many things that Viola can’t do!” Viola’s delight at her discovery is infectious.
At the end of the play, all the puppets decide to hold off on marriage in favour of independence: “I don’t want to be in a box,” Olivia snaps at her maid. Humans remained at the service of puppets throughout the play. “It was harder in the beginning,” says director Anurupa Roy, “but we schooled ourselves to remain invisible on stage.” The actors’ subtlety sparked the puppets into life with a magic that lingered when the play was over. As one little boy shook puppet Cesario’s hand, another viewer murmured, “It’s like there are still some remnants of life left in them, no?” I pinched Malvolio’s leathery latex cheek, looked down at his fearful fish-eyes and knew exactly what she meant.
“About Caliban, about Colombo” was a sharp departure from fairytale quality of “Twelfth Night”. Developed over a three-day workshop with English Literature students at Loyola College, the piece stayed cohesive to the end, a tribute to Mukherjee’s directorial instincts. In a space lit by a single tube light, with radio static grinding in the background, we felt like we were in a hard, gritty warehouse. Students explored the space with toy guns and black tape, while Mukherjee, like the voice of a forgotten conscience, ruthlessly interrogated their lack of engagement with political issues. Students’ recitals of Caliban’s monologues were uninspired, but Mukherjee didn’t spare them: “This is what you learn; that ‘this is literature’, ‘this is what you should think of Nigeria’?” Their self-written monologues were stronger: “I hate ropes. Especially the rope my chithi has around her neck.” Malini Murali stood out for her intensity.
The show wraps up, quite literally, with Mukherjee taking packing tape to the students’ sleeping bodies. “If you don’t answer,” he grins, “I’ll package your silence too,” and proceeds to draw the tape around a portion of air. His point suddenly became visual as we see our own damaging silence; what we ‘send’ to areas of conflict. The piece has apparently impacted political awareness on the Loyola campus already. As one student shared, “Our college wants more like this!”
The remaining two plays steered clear of political themes and presented more stylised takes on Shakespeare. K.V. Akshara’s “Lear Lahiri” was a Kannada version of King Lear, starring veteran actor G.K. Govindrao. The language barrier was unavoidable, but some actors stood out for their talent. The youngest daughter, played by Vidya, spoke entirely in song and had an intense, melancholy presence. The Fool, played by Srikanth, was hilarious in all his monologues.
The festival closed with Rajat Kapoor’s “Hamlet the Clown Prince”, a technically flawless show that swept the Mahindra Theatre Awards earlier this year. The show opens on Hamlet standing eager and confused in a lone column of light, while pacing clowns hand him telescopes, suitcases, and messages that he doesn’t understand. This image stays with us: in a riotous world of jokers and gibberish, Hamlet is desperately lonely beneath the makeup. “I am a coward,” he winces, “I do nothing...” and, in that instant, speaks to something cowering in all of us.
Atul Kumar’s performance comes from a deeply honest place that few actors have the ability to excavate. He does not just move us, but changes us fundamentally as we watch him. “It’s about the quintessential man,” he explains after the show, “...being a clown, I am asexual, elemental, universal ...I can spin in and out of character...and speak to more people, in a way.”
From the bold lighting to the punk-rock-meets-medieval-rags costumes, every artistic choice was strong. Festival curator Ranvir Shah commented after the show, that it was “one of the best pieces to come out of Indian theatre in a long time.” These shows reminded us that Shakespeare is as ‘Hamara’ as Hinglish. Like all things ‘Hamara’, we can take this for granted; it is no surprising achievement in itself. The ‘authenticity’ or ‘hybridity’ of these pieces is likewise irrelevant: what matters is that they were good.
Gorgeous, messy marriages of lethal elements, these plays socked us in the face and walked away without explaining themselves. And the pleasure lies in the punch.