Stage Whispers Society

Ode to irreverence

Small jolt: The best medicine

Small jolt: The best medicine   | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

I love it when a ‘tch tch’ is followed by laughter at an inappropriate line in a play

I recently saw two theatrical productions in Sydney. The first was William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, performed at the Pop-Up Globe. This is a wonderful concept. A travelling replica (made to scale, mind you) of London’s Globe Theatre, which is ground zero for everything Shakespeare, has been staging shows across Australia and New Zealand. In Sydney currently, they’re showing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and Merchant, which we caught.

Soon after, at the Lyric Theatre, I finally watched The Book of Mormon, which is the hugely successful musical from the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. This play is the epitome of political incorrectness and objectionable humour, and the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in a while. Two diametrically opposite plays on the face of it but sharing something in common. Now this may come as a shock to some readers, but what they were bound by, for me, was irreverence.

Healthy disrespect

Don’t let negative connotations jump into your heads. I mean irreverence in the best possible manner. I mean good-spirited, intelligent, tongue-firmly-in-cheek humour. I mean the kind of irreverence that is essential for society to progress. The maturity to be able to laugh at ourselves, or current affairs, or people in power. One may argue that there’s a fine line between irreverence and disrespect. I’d counter that by saying a little disrespect, done right, is probably healthy for the community.

The performers in the Shakespeare play made some contemporary jokes, targeted members from among the standing audience, and had a lot of inappropriate asides, some of which are very much in the original script. It was eye-opening.

Shakespeare was a crowd pleaser, and I suspect he’s smiling in his grave when performances are resulting in very happy audiences. This production found the right balance. On the one hand, the high stakes of the story, the wickedness of Shylock, and the gravity of commitment. On the other hand, the gender-bender jokes, the sexual innuendoes, and the levity of the sub-plots.

The Book of Mormon is another extreme. It thrives on its irreverence from the written word itself. No serious issue is spared. Christianity, AIDS, racism, America, civil war in Africa, everything is mocked. Even The Lion Kingbears the brunt of some jokes. It’s all absolutely hilarious. And because you’re laughing so hard, I feel somewhere that the iota of guilt we feel for enjoying an incorrect gag is actually a small jolt of awareness about how incorrect the subject of that gag really is. I remember, while walking out of the show, I was astonished about how, despite all the hilarity, the show clearly had soul. In my opinion, nothing is quite as influential as comedy that lingers.

Pushing boundaries

Comedy is a powerful tool. I was very impacted by an article I read about comedians in West Asia taking on the ISIS because “being able to laugh at a monster made the monster seem less scary”. Critics might argue that satirising serious issues and atrocities is inherently offensive. The Arab humorists disagree. They see satire as an antidote that empowers comedians and their audience. When you laugh about something that hurts, it’s a kind of recovery. It also has another effect. It diminishes and weakens. It reduces power. It suddenly makes the world’s biggest bogeymen seem fallible.

Are we doing this in India? Are we using comedy to its full potential? More importantly, are we allowed to? I think the emergence of stand-up comedy is a sign that it’s indeed happening, albeit in pockets. Most leading comics tackle a lot of issues, subtly or otherwise, in their sets. We’ve personally tried to do it in our plays, too, in small measure. Not as some sort of fight for freedom of speech against the government but as an effort to push boundaries with educated audiences to begin with.

I love when there’s a ‘haw’ or a ‘tch tch’ followed nonetheless by laughter at something inappropriate in our plays. It shows that everyone is opening up, and perhaps growing up. This is the best and most entertaining way to deal with things like communal mindsets, sex, homophobia, government-imposed restrictions, stereotyping, feminism, chauvinism, and generally conservative behaviour.

I’m hoping to catch some more theatre on this trip. When I was in Brisbane, Paresh Rawal was acting in Kishan vs. Kanhaiya Reloaded as part of the group’s Australia tour. I didn’t catch the play, but did meet a friend from the cast, and it felt good to catch up with compatriot theatre people on a global platform.

There are a couple of musicals in Canberra and Melbourne I have my eyes on. One is Shrek, the other is Madiba, about Nelson Mandela. Maybe my next piece will be about socially relevant musicals. Shrek probably won’t feature.

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

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2020 8:04:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/ode-to-irreverence/article25400559.ece

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