A trickle of water flashes silver from a tap, flowing endlessly. And silently — or so it seems amid the hubbub in the Ranga Shankara auditorium. It is only when the play begins that in the pin-drop silence we magically begin to hear the water flow into an unseen container. Silence has rendered what was silent, audible. Silence continues throughout the two-hour play where 15 actors playing 19 characters move in a stylised manner at a pace slower than a snail's, their wordlessness overlapped on carefully-chosen occasion by subtle layers of background music. This is “Water Station” by the late Japanese playwright Shogo Ohta who gave birth to the silent or chimoku geki genre of theatre. (The play, which premiered in 1981, was the first in what is called his ‘Station' series, followed by “Earth Station”, “Wind Station” and “Sand Station”.)
When you encounter “Water Station” directed by Sankar Venkateswaran you need an uncluttered mind to experience its minimalist beauty. The clutter we accumulate in our minds and our lives is represented by the odds and ends packed tight and piled high beneath and on the stage. Like the man in black amid the junk pile (played by Yeshwanth Kuchabal), we too observe the imperceptible flow of humanity. In an almost Zen state of concentration we watch characters inch down the T-shaped ramp one by one. They are dressed in shreds and patches that serve to erase the identifying markers of class, creed and nation, and are named after the roles they play: Man 1, Daughter 2, Father, Lone Woman and so on. They carry, bear, or are tied to, objects such as a pram, pot, flask, jug, shoe, parasol, basket, or baby-wear strung up on a clothes line, which perhaps symbolise our trappings, the ragtag burden of memories, experiences and emotions we carry with us on life's journey.
For most of the time the characters are locked in a terrible isolation, gazing into the distance. Their eyes sometimes look upon another but glances are almost never exchanged. For instance, Girl (Moon Moon Singh) gazes steadily at Man 1 (Ravindra Vijay) from a distance and Man 2 (Sunil Bannur) momentarily looks at Girl. Later, when both men simultaneously turn to inspect her she shrinks in fear, as do we. Old Woman (Scherazade Kaikobad) gazes curiously at Husband (Anirudh Nair) and Wife (Kavitha Srinivasan). The love-making couple do not once look each other in the eye, in contrast to Man (Siddhartha Mishra) and Woman (Sunitha), who meet in an intimate sensual embrace, but only to part ways. The characters come to life beside the water where they fight, play, cry, meet, part, love or die. The light that plays upon their faces creates moods with its varying intensity. At its brightest and almost apocalyptic, a sea of faces appears to witness an explosion, turning towards it in an infinite second of frozen horror. Hypnotised by the slow-mo movements of the characters, we are shocked by their rare, swift gestures: Father (Sunil Bannur) slapping Mother (Mandakini Goswami), Wife thrusting aside Husband, and Man clamping hand on mouth of crying Woman. The movements can also be humorous or absurd: the one-upmanship that Man 1 displays at the tap and Man with Huge Load (Gopalan) brushing his teeth to the tempo of the music.
The pan-Indian cast, selected through auditions, rehearsed for months in Thrissur, the home of Theatre Roots & Wings founded by Sankar Venkateswaran. They took part in a special workshop conducted by senior actress Tomoko Ando, a long-time collaborator of Shogo Ohta. The training must have been rigorous for they all exhibited tremendous control over breath and body. Hardcore theatre fans, who had seen the same director's previous production of “Water Station” featuring the Ninasam Repertory, turned up to assess the new cast and compare it with the old. This reviewer, for whom this play and this genre of theatre was a first-time experience, confesses to having been, in a word, transfixed.