Water Station is an acclaimed play by Japanese playwright and director Ota Shogo, in which language is eliminated, and silence and slow-paced movements are not just reduced to form, but are essential in exploring living, breathing human time.
In a recent production of Water Station directed by Sankar Venkateswaran with the students of Ninasam, much of this hypnotism is achieved as the actors spill on to stage like trickling water — slowly and most deliberately.
The first five minutes set expectations high: a tap runs on a platform centre stage, amidst a set neatly designed to trace the journeys of the characters who come to this water station. The first actor barely moves and her eventual journey to the water station is marked by surprise when, for the first time, the sound of the running water stops.
As the play unfolds, many travellers pass the water station, in several stunning visual compositions holding in them in suspension for several moments. All of them are part of the same narrative, but reveal disparate stories, some intended, some imagined.
Ventakeswaran uses the vocabulary that Ota Shogo used to devise this play: silence, stillness and open space, each in their maximum capacities attempting to push the actors into that liminal space — an exercise that requires great rigour.
This extreme, meditative physicality could have achieved several things. To begin with, in the context of the collaboration between the director and the actors of Ninasam, it probably opened up an engagement with body and emotion on a different level, equipping them with new tools in the use of their practice.
In the context of contemporary urban theatre, as the play was staged at Ranga Shankara, it may have reinforced the importance of working with physicality; it may have even worked as a reminder that space and stories with the body are just as interesting, if not more, as the use of verbal communication.
It was a demanding performance for an audience to watch because it needed a far more immersed engagement with the play than usual.
Having said that, if the play in its existing form could have used a re-interpretation of context, it might have been that much more compelling. Water Station emerged from Ota Shogo's profound understanding of his world and created spectatorship of a sublime kind for his audiences. In the same vein, if the play had, with the use of costumes and music perhaps, brought the water station to a more familiar place, it could have easily elevated itself above the level of proficiency it had already achieved.