Resilience in the face of adversity

Naseeruddin Shah will tread the fine line that separates the ludicrous from the pathetic in The Father that will run for three months, something uncommon for the Indian audience

August 31, 2017 04:28 pm | Updated 04:28 pm IST

A global sensation arrives on Indian shores this week for a ground breaking theatrical run. The Father ( Le Père in French) is the tragic farce penned by one of France’s best known contemporary playwrights, Florian Zeller. Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley troupe has picked up the play’s English translation by Christopher Hampton, with Shah directing himself in the lead part of André, a man grappling with Alzheimer’s. Co-director Ratna Pathak Shah and Heeba Shah will take on the part of André’s beleaguered daughter in alternate shows. The ensemble includes actors like Neeraj Kabi, Trishla Patel and Bhavna Pani.

Shah was given the script by Paresh Rawal, who had caught the show on Broadway. “It has always been the case that whenever I have read plays, the ones that I end up doing, I decide to do on the very first reading,” said Shah. The Father was no exception. It’s a fairly young play, written in 2012, and is not yet part of a canon that’s been done to death, although it has been performed in several countries. “There have been quite definitive productions of classics. The temptation of playing parts like King Lear or The Man of La Mancha is great, but I can’t really find a vision for those plays, which is why I have never attempted them,” said Shah.

It was the freshness of Zeller’s play, and its unique perspective — movingly written from the point of view of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s — that piqued his interest. The play doesn’t present a final resolution to André’s trauma. There is the implication that his suffering will continue for sometime, taking an emotional toll on both him and his carers. Yet, André’s unwitting resilience in the face of adversity provides the play with its many bitter-sweet moments, which is why it comes off as an exemplary black comedy than anything dreary and dispiriting.

Researching the part

To accurately grasp the debilitating nature of the condition that he would represent on stage, Shah consulted a specialist who treats Alzheimer’s patients, and a friend whose husband suffered for 11 long years. Additionally, one of the play’s trusted lieutenants is Arghya Lahiri, who has designed the lights, and worked on sets with Anuradha Parekh Benegal and Pathak Shah. Lahiri’s own play, the elegiac Wild Track , was based on his father’s futile tryst with dementia. “I talked a lot to Arghya, his father suffered a lot. He approaches any job, not just from the point of view of lighting it, but from other creative aspects as well. It’s amazing how he does it. The idea of the set came from him,” said Shah, speaking of the play’s built-in visual aesthetic that his team has tried to emulate. André is shuffled from one living quarter to another, but to his mind he’s always at home. As dementia takes hold of him, hallucinations become an entangled part of André’s lived reality. “In the Broadway and West End productions, they apparently have an illusionist credited, who makes the furniture disappear. We haven’t gone down that route. In my book, that’s not really theatre,” said Shah. “To me the magic of theatre is the stimulation it can provide the audience’s imagination.”

Long engagement

One of the most talked-about aspects of this particular outing is the sheer volume of shows to be staged at two venues — the NCPA’s Experimental Theatre and Prithvi Theatre (where its run will begin in late November). A mind-boggling 61 shows in total have been announced for 2017. A long engagement of this sort is quite common in the West, but it is almost unheard of in India where the associated logistical costs are typically too high to be recovered from box office sales alone. Unless, of course, a name like Shah’s lights up the marquee, and it is his unimpeachable standing in theatre circles that makes these venues — inaccessible for most groups — available for the asking for an experiment of this kind.

Of course, uncertainty cannot completely be obliterated from an ethos in which captive audiences are never a given, and arts subsidy is an alien concept. If the pickings at the box office are not quite so slim after all, a brand-new sustainable model could arguably emerge for future Motley runs, as long as top-draw Shah remains at the helm of affairs.

More than box office receipts, we have Shah’s long standing desire to have his troupe “tread the boards every night” and experience first-hand the rigours and rewards of professional theatre but without an impresario’s eye on the bottom-line. Shah is quite firm that not just any play could have been taken up for this ‘dream run.’ He realised early on that Zeller’s script, with its layers and depths, would be particularly demanding of its actors. “They wouldn’t be able to summon up what is required if we performed the play as sporadically as we do our other shows,” he said. Thus, having continuous performances in the same space seemed all too imperative, and not necessarily to allow the actors to “become their characters,” a rum notion that Shah is quick to debunk. Instead, he draws an analogy from sport, “The actors will be able to attain the state of readiness of a sportsman, staying completely in the zone, being thoroughly focused on the task in hand, like a batsman coming in for his innings prepared for any eventuality.” Discovering the essences, intrinsic or unexpected, of the play through its run is something Shah and his team are looking forward to. The Father promises to be an uncommon experience for both actors and their successive audiences. Those who want encores will be spoiled for choice.

The writer is a playwright

and stage critic

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