Theatre

Basic instincts

A scene from the play. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Natya Ballet Centre mounted the Hindi version of Eugene O' Neill's “Desire Under the Elms” with an imaginative director, experienced actors and fine dancers at Shri Ram Centre recently. The production cast a spell on the audience with its innovative choreography which reinforced the tragic vision of a great American playwright.

The action takes place in Cabot farmhouse in New England. The year is 1850. Cabot's three young sons talk maliciously about their father who has gone out of the farm. They all want ownership of the farm. Eben, the youngest son, takes the money hidden away by his father and gives it to his two step-brothers who are desperate to join the California gold rush, so that he would be the only heir to the farm.

Eben is shocked to see his old father returning with a young woman. Cabot declares she is his third wife. The new wife, Abbie, hopes to grab the farm one day. Pretending to be a loving and faithful wife, she promises the old man that she would give birth to a son and he would be a happy father. To fulfil her desire, she tries to seduce young Eben who sees through her advances and intension — to deprive him of his right to the farm. But he yields to her passion despite his hatred for her.

With adapted elements from the Oedipus story, the play was initially severely criticised on grounds of morality. It was banned in Boston and Britain. Gradually, it evoked admiration for its craft — the motives and the actions of the characters propelled by circumstances and psyche, and its stature as a great dramatic work was acknowledged. Events unfold in a logical, natural and direct way that culminates in tragedy. At another level, the play indicts materialism and greed for land that robs a man of his human essence and metamorphoses him into a tyrant like Cabot. Every character is obsessed with the instinct to own land. Even the sheriff, who comes to arrest Abbie for killing her infant son, wishes to own the farm, indicating how pervasive is greed in society.

The play is directed by Deepak Ochaney and Gajraj Nagar with choreography by Ajay Bhatt. Actor-director Ochaney is known for producing remarkably slick plays. His production of Surendra Verma's “Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se” was widely acclaimed for its technical brilliance, impressive acting and sensitive direction. His creative collaboration with choreographer Bhatt means a very artistic reinforcement of the elements of hate, greed and passion. The best thing about the beautifully conceived choreography is that it is well-woven into the basic narrative structure, providing insights into the characters' inner world.

In the past we have seen “Desire…” in a realistic style. Here choreographic patterns are not used to embellish the production. In scenes like seduction and killing of the infant by the mother, dance compositions with powerful background music become an important means of expression. The production allows the sordid tragedy to unfold naturally and rhythmically without interruption.

The casting is apt. Mukul Saran Mathur as Ephraim Cabot truly lives his character. His Cabot is a dictator, who forces his sons to work on the farm like slaves, though he is himself a hardworking, god-fearing farmer who boasts physical prowess and marries a woman half his age. His greed for land is rapacious. Though his family disintegrates his attachment for the farm does not weaken. Sanjeela Mathur plays Abbie with impressive stage presence and grace, investing her role with emotional power. She transforms her character from a seducer and a schemer to a true lover capable of self effacement to the point of killing her infant to prove her sincerity. Burhan plays Eben admirably.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 6:41:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/Basic-instincts/article16044693.ece

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