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An evening with Shakespeare

After a hiatus, Chennai's theatre buffs were treated to Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night". ELIZABETH ROY reviews the recent production.

"The Twelfth Night" ... a presentation that had few frills.

AFTER A long break Shakespeare returned to the Chennai stage last week, this time round with The Madras Players and Masquerade. The old and the young coming together brought in a great deal of fresh air and a sense of comfort. And, perhaps it is one of the last performances in the Museum Theatre before it closes down for renovation and restoration.

"Twelfth Night" is a popular play, generally thought to be simple and light-hearted and an oft-prescribed text in both schools and colleges. But it also offers a great challenge to any group that takes it up for production. The production , directed by Krishna Kumar S., was a straight presentation with as little frills as possible and in many ways pointed towards Shakespearean productions.

The sets by M. Natesh were basic and functional. Panels (with signature drawings from Natesh) against the dark wings effectively created the illusion of pillars. A couple of wrought iron archways and painted screens made the scene shifts from the garden to the court or Olivia's house effective and easy. In shades of white and grey the structure played itself down, allowing the drama to move to the forefront. Lighting design, also by Natesh, was colourful and very artistic but did not always light the actors and seemed to hamper communication between them and the audience. Music by Mahesh was delightful and took one right back to Elizabethan England, the "nest of singing birds''. In many ways it made up for anything the play may have lacked.

As if to tilt the balance came an array of horrendous costumes, badly designed, badly cut and badly tailored. Unfortunately, it helped destroy the characters the actors were struggling to build. The range in style and period didn't seem to follow any definite plan. It was perhaps Feste who suffered most in his ill-fitting Santa Claus hand-me-down. There was no way he could have come through as the central character, the link between the main plot and the sub-plot. Feste had to understand the minds of his audience and tune in his speech to their moods. Further, when alone on stage he gave us the vision (overshadowing the happiness of the lovers) of an uncontrollable world of time and decay.

Despite drawbacks Karthik Srinivasan reached his audience through his excellent singing, particularly the last song. Shakespeare opens his plays with minor characters who introduce the main characters and the plot and put the play in perspective. There was an obvious lack of commitment from these minor characters and as a result the play had to struggle into life in the later scenes.

On the other hand there were actors who were a pleasure to watch and listen to. Shakespeare would have been pleased with Mala Govias' handling of the run on lines in particular. Her involvement as Maria was total and quite perfect.

P. C. Ramakrishna's Malvolio complemented her performance. As always the lines of poetry sat light on his tongue. His "gulling of Malvolio" was one of the best ever. He cut a very good melancholy major-domo of the Lady Olivia, in the prison of his ego. However, the play did not give him sufficient support to bring out his obvious solitude as a striking comic variant on the confinement suffered by Orsino and Olivia.

Another actor who showed much promise and who seemed most at home with his Shakespeare was Harsha Subramaniam, who played Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It must have been quite a struggle for him to rise above his costume, which did him "most wrong".

The three lovers Anurag Rathi (Orsino), Kumudam Neelakantan (Olivia) and Lekha Washington (Viola) came through after bad starts. A little more attention to body language would have helped them greatly. In fact one wonders if a bold stylisation of the lovers might not after all have struck through to the heart of experience.

To give the group its due one must admit they held the audience's attention. The public enjoyed their Shakespeare and the universality and contemporaneity of Twelfth Night.

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