Lost in translation

Moments of easy levity and tongue-in-cheek humour are a hallmark of Rajat Kapoor’s plays, in which William Shakespeare’s scripts are used as target practice, as it were, by an intrepid bunch of actors eager to own the material, as they frequently do. In his Macbeth adaptation, What is Done is Done, performed last weekend at Prithvi Theatre, Kapoor’s actors (and he has a strong ensemble at his disposal) also spend considerable time wallowing in the tragedy’s darker themes — the gore and the bloodshed and the embittered psyche of the depraved times in which we live (very much in the present tense). In this iteration, Ranvir Shorey plays the now incumbent King of Scotland (dubbed Macky B, in hipster style), and he is induced to his murderous follies by a Lady Macbeth performed in connivance by not one but three actors (Kalki Koechlin, Mansi Multani and Maya Sarao), who also ‘triple’ up as the witches.

The ‘play within the play’, another Kapoor staple, is set up by a bumbling duo — Vinay Pathak and Jim Sarbh — who appear to be backroom janitors with delusions of grandeur, and everything that ensues could merely be a figment of their overripe imaginations. Or it could be, as they claim, a play they have produced themselves as clown impresarios of a certified pedigree. Pathak’s characteristic easy manner is offset by Sarbh’s steely glint of eye, but not always in comfortable collusion. They draw out metaphors from the play, flitting in and out of scenes like self-professed omniscient narrators. Their asides are only occasionally diverting, but in the midst of one particularly facetious interaction with theatre-goers, they burst into a spiel of invective that suddenly creates a kind of disturbance on a turf where their derring-do had come off as uninspired. And, of course, that is because their material is no more the bard’s blank verse milked dry by the machinations of its cast, but a poem by Namdeo Dhasal, founder of the radical Dalit Panther movement.

Taken from his anthology, Golpitha, published in 1972, the poem, ‘Man, You Should Explode’, is a desperate incitement to capitulate to one’s basest instincts, only shrouded by the flimsiest veil of irony that may well pass many by. It is an even more subaltern version of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, chockfull with obscenities and radical subversion. It was performed with greater immediacy in Sunil Shanbag’s Blank Page, by Hridaynath Jadhav, rapaciously setting upon the original Marathi text, and Sukant Goel, who spiritedly attacked the English translation by Dilip Chitre. In What is Done is Done, it provides an undercurrent of resistance, but remains an antidote administered too late to an enterprise that is unsure of what political ground to tread, catering as it does to the blinkered bourgeoisie. Although Pathak and Sarbh martial up their resources with aplomb, their diversions cannot spoon-feed an audience the larger ideas that could have been. Even a sincere and steady Shorey, on whose sturdy shoulders the play is perched, cannot shore up what appears to have been irrevocably lost in translation.

We fare much better with Lady Macbeth, as she benefits from the layering bestowed upon her by multiple personas. The actors who play her come dressed in costumes and painted faces that reflect a Japanese kabuki-style aesthetic. The witches, especially, could have walked out of Koji Suzuki’s Ringu. The visual grammar of the play is certainly striking. In one scene, we watch Lady Macbeth pacing in her chambers, plotting and scheming, all three actors aligned along perspectives of narratives that appear to be occurring simultaneously. Koechlin is in her element, perfectly poised and perfectly diabolical, her cool-as-ice demeanour contrasted with Multani’s display of nerves and histrionics as she excavates her character's vulnerabilities. Sarao, perhaps not quirky enough, seems misplaced in this venture.

While Kapoor is one of our great contemporary cinema auteurs, and his films have been realist and rooted affairs, his theatre has been resolutely situated in the realm of Fellini-esque surrealism with its fascination with circus clowns and their larger-than-life idiosyncrasies. Sometimes derivative, sometimes unbridled, his plays have tampered with Shakespeare’s vaunted iambic pentameter but retained its essences, as we saw in Hamlet The Clown Prince (a stage classic if ever) and Nothing Like Lear. But here, the mutation results in a work stripped of the original’s considerable dramatic heft. In Macbeth, the spoils of political ambition come at great human cost, yet it is no more the parable to which we can all return to for the answers that elude us elsewhere.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 10:19:17 PM |

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