stage whispers Theatre

Play it again

Getty images/ istock

Getty images/ istock  

Contemporary theatre resonates with current affairs

Around Christmas last year, I met Hassan Abdulrazzak in London for dinner. For those who haven’t heard me talk enough about him, he is the award-winning Iraqi playwright of Baghdad Wedding, among many other important plays. He spoke to me of his latest work, The Special Relationship, which is currently playing in Soho.

Developed from interviews with ex-prisoners and experts in immigration and criminal law, this documentary play takes an ironic look at the so-called ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America through the lens of deportation. It tells the real-life stories of British subjects who were deported from the U.S. in the age of Trump, who we recently hosted here in India.

Relevant tales

Hassan Abdulrazzak is always pertinent. And it is unfortunate that his tales of strife remain relevant years after they have been written. Recent events in Delhi reminded me vividly of scenes from his play The Prophet, set in the 2011 uprising in Egypt. I must admit, it is rather bizarre how so much contemporary theatre that I have seen recently has resonated with current affairs, either knowingly or unknowingly. Hamilton, the blockbuster musical, is about a statesman trying to pass a bill, and deals with the troubles of immigrants.

Come from Away is a life-affirming tale about a community coming to the rescue of a large group of strangers in a crisis. I won’t reveal more. This is an excellent play. Get your hands on it or watch it.

A Museum in Baghdad is about the politics of preserving history in a changing landscape. And finally, the timeless Les Misérables, which covers too many socio-political issues to list here (including eventually quelled unrest), but drives home the fact that in the final analysis, not much has changed from early 19th century France.

Issue-based content

Recently, a lot of people from the arts were very vocal about their dissent with the goings on in our nation, and I’m hoping to see that permeate into the content they create this year, in whatever capacity. There seems to be a resurgence in issue-based content of late. While the Oscars’ darling, Parasite, paints a heartbreaking picture of class difference, cinema back home has also been taking subjects like homosexuality and domestic violence by the horns. These are interestingly charged times and theatre is always among the first mediums to be actively representative of the atmosphere.

Ancient Greek theatre, even the comedies, were extremely political. Aristophanes, back around 400 BC, wrote Lysistrata, which revolved around the women of Athens who decide to withhold sex till their husbands end the war. In March 2003, there were readings of the play held worldwide to protest against the possible war in Iraq.

Shakespeare too was fascinated with politics, and showed a keen understanding of it. We studied Julius Caesar in school, which is really one of the earliest political assassination thrillers I ever read. I recently watched a production of Coriolanus (written in the early 1600s), which is a great, sprawling action play, full of sword fights and social upheaval between Rome and a neighbouring tribe. It is also an extremely political play in which the issues of class, government and control are hotly debated.

Bertolt Brecht

Over the course of his career, Bertolt Brecht developed ‘epic theatre’, in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes, and rational argument were used to create (or sometimes shock the audience into) realisation. His famous play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was a satirical allegory of Hitler and the Nazi party.

Back home, I remember reading Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq in school and being quite taken with it. I even used a passage for an elocution competition. It is a somewhat Shakespearean study of political ambition and betrayal and a crazy despot’s whims.

Karnad wrote the play in Kannada in 1965 when India’s disillusionment with its government was at its peak. In an interview, Anupama Chandrashekhar says about Tughlaq: “I first read it in the 1990s, during the early chaos surrounding the Babri mosque’s demolition and India’s economic liberalisation, and I found the socio-political roiling of the 14th century strangely resonant. I reread it again recently and found premonitions of Trump. It is one of those rare gems that is both of its time and ahead of it.”

Circled back to Trump somehow. In Bombay, in the last decade, I have seen some terrific socio-political theatre, if I may call it that, by Quasar Thakore Padamsee (A Peasant of El Salvador, Project S.T.R.I.P.) and Sunil Shanbag (Cotton 56 Polyester 84, Sex, Morality and Censorship). And something tells me, there’s more to come.

The writer, a theatre producer and director, is often broke. To cope, he writes and directs films and web series and occasionally acts, albeit reluctantly.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:03:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/play-it-again/article31000268.ece

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