The words of a dead man Are modified in the guts of the living. W.H. AudenNowhere is the truth of the above lines, written by Auden in memory of W.B.Yeats, more obvious than in the case of Shakespeare whose words have been modified over and over again to suit living generations and cultures. The recent production of Hamlet, presented by the Bombay-based theatre group Pravah at the Ranga Shankara, was an excellent instance of such an attempt. A unique feature of this multi-lingual production, directed by Neeraj Kabi, was the blending of traditional Indian art forms like Yakshagana and Dhrupad with modern theatre. Presented as something of an anti-war play, the production was notable for its attempt to visualise the psychological conflict within the characters through the use of doubles. While Hamlet's double, a woman, spoke her lines in English, the male spoke his in Hindi. Though there were times when one failed to grasp the logic behind the division of lines between the two, by and large, the more passionate, poetic lines, (the soliloquies in particular) appeared to have been given to the woman while Hamlet's mad act and tomfoolery were conducted by her male counterpart in Hindi. The recitation of the soliloquies against the background of Dhrupad, were acted out by a Yakshagana artiste, suggesting, perhaps, a further split between words. In fact, all the actors spoke their lines (often recited them without emotions) directly to the audience, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the characters they were addressed. The break down of communication between Polonius and his children was made even more obvious by the way Polonius recited his pedantic speeches in Hindi, to which his children responded in English, (a situation not too unfamiliar in Indian society today!) The conflict within Gertrude between the mother and Claudius' queen was brought out through her two selves, one of them a motherly figure clad in complete black and the other, a more sensuous woman with a bit of scarlet in her dress. The white frill in Ophelia's costume, on the other hand, proclaimed her innocence and virginity. Another interesting feature of the production was the simultaneous presentation of the action happening in different spaces and times. While Gertrude's motherly self affectionately fondled her forlorn son, her other self could be seen in the background romancing with Claudius. This simultaneity of action was particularly effective in the last act where a number of things happen in quick succession.
Among the scenes which made an impact were the visualisation of Hamlet's visit to Ophelia's chamber and Ophelia's drowning, both of which are in the form of reports in the original play. The repeated, ineffective puppet-like movement of Hamlet's sword effectively caricatured Hamlet's inability to kill Claudius. The power game between Hamlet and Claudius was made visible through the moves on the chessboard. The liberties the director had taken with the text in some of the scenes added new dimensions to the scenes, as with the transferring of the dialogue between Hamlet and his mother to the two selves of Gertrude. But a little more care could have gone into the editing of the play. It was odd to hear Hamlet comment on the player's speech about Hecuba when the speech itself had been removed. The brief preview of the murder through Yakshagana at the very opening of the play was effective and prepared the audience for the ghost. In fact, it was more effective than the more elaborate version presented later in 'the play within the play' where the rather pedestrian, improvised dialogue ruined the impact. Though the use of the villainous brother from the Yakshagana as Claudius's double later added to the colour and scope of the scene, as did the duel between the Yakshagana players in the final scene, there were times when the use of Yakshagana appeared a little gimmicky. But the Dhrupad blended well with the mood of the play and was never obtrusive.The sets, though simple, were striking and richly suggestive. The crude chair, placed in the centre of the stage and bathed in red light, suggesting the throne of blood, gave the play an impressive start. Harivanshrai Bachchan's translation did full justice to the poetry of Shakespeare. LAXMI CHANDRASHEKAR