The politics of consent

On stage: A performance of Extremities

On stage: A performance of Extremities  

The word itself might refer to the very edges of our experiences, where ideas and notions acquire a lucid and distinctive clarity, but the play Extremities, written by William Mastrosimone and recently staged in Mumbai by director Hidayat Sami, achieves the blurring of lines that, unwittingly perhaps, appears to obfuscate the issues at hand. First performed in 1982, this meditation on rape appears dated and problematic although coming at a time the #metoo movement (and its resolute taking of sides) continues to pepper the airwaves, one might understand why theatremakers would want to revisit it — it is inexplicably an amatueur theatre staple in the West.

Discomfiting watch

The play is no Rashomon — the central event in which a stranger (Gagan Riar) assaults a woman, Marjorie (Aditi Puthran), who’s alone in her apartment is not shrouded in any kind of ambiguity. There is violence, coercion, the explicit lack of consent, even premeditation. International productions of the play make a meal of it, milking the ‘drama’ for all it’s worth, so much so that the play has acquired a reputation of frequent injuries during rehearsals. Sami has his perpetrator simply pin Marjorie down belligerently, but it is still a discomfiting watch, perhaps more sensational than introspective, and no doubt troubling for survivors who might be in the audience. Staging sexual assault doesn’t really stray from the literal, but even in so-called realistic settings, an unexpected portrayal might well prove more compelling or gut-wrenching. When Marjorie overpowers the man, blinds him with bug-spray, ties him up and then binds him to a fireplace fender, most of the action is implied in a long fade-out. However, that a rape needs to be ‘seen’ in order for us to believe the victim, and perhaps to eliminate any subjectivity in the eye of the viewer of what actually happened, is reductive and retrograde.

There is also a strange kind of morality brimming under the surface, creating an equivalence between the man’s transgressions with Marjorie’s vindictiveness that comes as a consequence of it. Here, the debate is not about legal remedies, but egregious personal retribution that supposedly dwarfs the act – committed by a family man who found a woman’s attire provocative enough to stalk her for weeks before moving in for a kill. Riar is even allowed a redemption speech in the end, and he plays up his ‘charming cad’ spiel somewhat disingenuously, and those in attendance titter helplessly along. Marjorie’s roommates, Terry (Saloni Shukla) and Patricia (Fatima Arif), who arrive at the scene almost appear to buy in more easily to his sob-story rather than her version of events. Puthran’s coldness of demeanour doesn’t make her a credible witness even for them and while they are compelled to support her in feminine solidarity, there is little sympathy lost. Victim-blaming is part of this turf with revealing clothes taking a knock yet again, and antiquated rape laws and invasive legal procedures are talked of as deterrents to due process — but where the play could’ve brought out the ironies and contradictions in these very conversations powerfully it simply reinforces the status quo.

Raw power

By contrast, a short play that deals with the lack of consent within a relationship — Rapunzel 2.0 by Tanvi Lehr Sonigra — forces us to engage with a similar turf far more convincingly. Its title refers to the fairy-tale from the Brothers Grimm collection, in which a princess lets down her long golden hair to let her keepers climb up to her, which is already an intrusion even if, like Sleeping Beauty’s kiss, it has been looked at almost benignly. In her self-devised piece, Sonigra has her hair cut short, almost in protest, as she attempts to straddle the dualities of gender that promise to become a path to deliverance from a past fraught with abuse and debilitating self-doubt. It is a piece in which Sonigra doesn’t shy away from nudity, and that gives the performance both its moments of striking vulnerability and raw power. The piece then becomes a site for catharsis.

The writer has provided dramaturgical support to Rapunzel 2.0

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 11:03:26 PM |

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