in conversation Manto with Melville and Ibsen with Hakim: N. P. Ashley on the art of mixing theatre
Theatre is like a video game. Once you have cleared all the levels in a game, you move on to a new one. But true geeks tweak the game, reprogram it and take it to a new level. N. P. Ashley tries to do that with theatre. A teacher of English in St. Stephen’s College, he was drawn from Hyderabad to Delhi by its vibrant theatre scene.
“While theatre in Delhi is thriving, a lot of it is either state or corporate sponsored. This has unfortunately led to a disregard for the audience. How many groups do you have like Arvind Gaur’s (Asmita) where youngsters personally request theatre-goers to attend their plays,” he asks.
Popular theatre spaces here are constrained, he explains. “They usually don’t cross the 100 to 150 seat limit. Like the biblical adage of emerging from and returning to the soil, theatre must emerge and go back to the people. Subversive theatre is just OK here because it only has a niche audience. Some of the experiments are not in tune with contemporary reality.”
Ashley has found salvation in college theatre, which has the space and the audience. “The advantage of Delhi, vis-à-vis Hyderabad or Kerala, is that theatre here is not as influenced by cinema— due to the benchmark set by NSD (National School of Drama). College students — vocal and energetic — find theatre communitarian and flock to it.”
A co-ordinator with Stephens’ Shakespeare Society, Ashley says, “Here we try to bridge the gap between page and stage. It is a merger of theories of race, politics and so on with literature. Students are keen on understanding these before thinking about the play.”
Ashley’s research and work has primarily been that of a dramaturge — that of adapting plays, researching scripts, questioning the director and, overseeing the design and critical understanding a troupe adds to the institution of a play.
He explains, “The most important duty of the dramaturge, is a counter intuitive one, as he can ask the director a series of whys about the design, and its coordinates. As intuitions are mediated by ideology, history and socio-eco-cultural relations, this attempt to negotiate and thus situate the inherent dominant mode in intuition becomes imperative.”
At the Ibsen festival recently, Stephen’s performed Norwegian playwright Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People which also drew from Egyptian writer Tawfik al-Hakim’s River of Madness . “Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann character suppressed a lot of the other characters, so we let the other characters develop the narrative… Hakim’s play is a symbolic one about understanding democracy. I didn’t get Hakim’s point until Tehreer square happened,” he says.
The play allowed the actors to be directors. Ashley wanted the process to challenge the performers. Never mind if they weren’t strong, at least they wouldn’t get out the character they had created.
“We don’t want to be fashionably incomprehensible, we genuinely wanted to create unease... A style has to emerge over time; a style that can be reconceived every time,” he reveals.
His past work with Othello in 2011 and The Museum of Lost Pieces at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in 2009— were radically different from the common directed play. Among his works are a play mixing Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and, The Dead Channel in 2009— which drew from 10 sources that included plays, movies, poems and critical works.
“Theatre is always a process. If everything is set in stone, with a director and lines to learn; if everything is clear and everything is known, then where is the fun,” he exclaims.
It is this spirit which makes Delhi University plays a gale of fresh air in Mandi House.
PHEROZE L. VINCENT