Energetic and fluid, Roysten Abel's "Othello" engaged the audience at the physical and the conceptual levels
The hall is full. All mobile phones are in silent mode! When a cell in row three rings shrilly, shriller voices protest. Any further evidence needed to prove that Roysten Abel's "Othello: A Play in Black and White" kept the audience riveted? This production has been staged 50 times in India and abroad and made into a film. But what if we ask what the play offers, apart from a certain opalescence infused by seven years of honing and glazing, editing and trimming?Director Roysten Abel hangs his first original work on a familiar ploy of play-within-a-play. Nothing new in the text invading the personal lives of actors, forcing them into bizarre replications of its action and emotion. But here, the device has energy and fluidity at physical and conceptual levels. A Delhi repertory invites Kathakali-trained Keralite Roy as guest director, known for his cutting-edge experiments. The script is openly amused by English theatre's snobbery and its desperate attempts to recharge itself with trendy ethnicities.Each actor is both himself and Shakespearean character and archetype. The initial Kathakali session and declamatory dialogues from Othello ensure that stylisation is part of self-expression.White Barry blackens his face in anticipation. But the director makes him Iago. "I don't know much about Iago, I didn't even know he was old," is Barry's resentful reaction. It seeps into his conniver's role. Roy throws a lamb in the lion's den when he yanks the team's Hindi-Assamese spewing Kathakali trainer Adil from the margins for his Moor of Venice.Adil is characterised by his lack of English, his non-urban, north-eastern background and skills in a classical genre alien to their westernised souls. Only Kristin (Desdemona) welcomes his elevation. The others are preyed upon by "jealousy, the green-eyed monster, that mocks the meat it feeds on." The more they feed it, the hungrier it grows, and blackens their souls.The clever text peppers straightforward envy with strands snaking up from deep within, laid bare in unlovely plotting to oust Adil. The actors become confused about their identities, real and feigned. Something more powerful than the director takes charge and casts baleful malice on conscious and unconscious motivations. Nothing is black and white, except the title. Everything slithers in-between.The play subverts much, provokes much, ridicules much. Where was Desdemona's innocence when Kristin tempts Adil to 'massage' her? The triangle gets lopsided when 'Mrs. Othello' kick-starts a possessive frenzy in Adil, injuring her real life relationship with a jealous Cassio (Dilip).The stage is the lie-detector supreme. Barry promises to help Adil get over his obsessions. However, in rehearsing the scene where Iago convinces Othello to strangle 'guilty' Desdemona in the bed she has blackened, Barry unleashes a demon. Unknowingly or knowingly? The twin story strands are unwound cleverly in a multilingual, accents-varied text - English poetic and contemporary, with spurts of Hindi, Assamese and Malayalam. Spontaneous humour from irony to farce roots the tragedy. Kathakali in the climax, complete with tiraiseelai and mudras, is no sudden intrusion, but the knotting of running stitches. Finally, a 'strangled' Desdemona's hands caress her 'murderer' in a hot fade out. Didn't the ancients regard sex as a 'little death'?
The lighting was a treat. Stark, romantic, rimmed and shaded, it created long shot frescoes and up-close miniatures. The sound did not match it, leaving some faint patches. Highly orchestrated physical theatre left no inch of stage space unused. Barry John stood out. He knew the right pitch for everything from disdain to tumult. His body unfailingly reflected those notes. This excellence gave his outraged trouncing of the worship of youth a thought-provoking dimension. Adil Hussain was dynamic, impressive, but tended to overdo the rage. The others convinced, though Desdemona was left with a paper doll flimsiness. The production aspired to - and reached - something beyond damn good entertainment. But troublesome questions remained. This play came up as a protest against racial prejudice. Though Abel says he is now interested only in human emotions, the subject cannot disassociate itself from politics. Abel's Othello is neither a man of a ripe old culture - tribal or regional - nor a noble general of Venice. And where is Adil's sophistication as a dancer in a classical genre? He emerges as a village idiot, a halfwit of uncontrolled passions. Does this frenzy strip the marginalised people it empathises with of their essential dignity?The play was staged as part of The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Festival at The Music Academy on August 6.