FRIDAY REVIEW

Anticipating freedom

VARIETY ENTERTAINMENT Improvised skits truly finding their best form

VARIETY ENTERTAINMENT Improvised skits truly finding their best form  

THEATRE Ms. Meena by Chennai-based Perch was fresh, slick and entertaining. However it refused to stir you

T he story of the play Ms. Meena is about Ms. Meena, an ageing movie star who returns in triumph to her old village to shoot her own biopic, but actually seeking the death of her old lover, grocer Ravi, who had scorned and abandoned her in pregnancy when she was young and struggling. The villagers then had been Ravi's accomplices and she now, in grotesque and vicious glory, wants them to be her accomplices in the game.

The movie-crazed villagers, who speak multiple tongues, begin to align with her not only on the promise that the village will be pulled it out of its miserable poverty with Meena's generous funds, but also for the roles they will get to play in the biopic.

What the Chennai-based Perch and Bangalore's Rafiki (staged at Rangashankara, Bangalore, recently) manage is to put on boards a delightful, though simplified adaptation of Dürrenmatt's classic (by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan), retaining every key element of the original in the story. But in the staging, even though director Rajiv Krishnan hangs on faithfully to the Swiss playwright's purpose and dramatic style, the production – fresh, slick and entertaining – is not a moving experience.

Perhaps, Krishnan does not intend it to be. After all, wasn't Dürrenmatt always insisting, “I write only comedies... only comedy is possible in the world today” (Interview with Violet Ketels, Temple University, 1969). And funnily enough, at the end of the play, when the inevitable moment of pathos is forced upon us, we must patiently wait it out, eager as we are to jump to our feet to congratulate the talented young actors for the sheer vitality and singing, dancing and clever creation of scenic spaces with broomsticks, baskets, pans and such improvising props.

Dürrenmatt himself was hard on most productions on stage, film and TV (“...because I was mostly misunderstood”), posing uncomfortable questions which, in the present instance, are eventually drowned in a romp of mimicry, games and laughter in the director's dynamic play space. The play moves between huge bits of variety entertainment, improvised skits truly finding their best form.

But in 1956, when Dürrenmatt wrote “The Visit” (Der Besuch der alten Dame), he seemed to be asking what made it all so horribly wrong with World War II. Let us recall: In the 1933 general election, Nazis managed to get 43.9 per cent of the vote. Hitler still needed the help of the centrist Nationalist German National People's Party (DNVP) to get a two-thirds majority to pass the Enabling Act, which eventually gave him dictatorial power.

Son of a Protestant minister who himself narrowly missed becoming a priest, Dürrenmatt, had found himself ethically confronted in the wake of Hitler and Stalin (“world butchers with slaughtering machines”). He decided that pure tragic was now impossible: “...today power is too enormous, too automatic. We cannot see it anymore... Democracy cannot take authoritarian power seriously. When we cannot have personal responsibility, personal guilt, we cannot have tragedy.”

When Ms. Meena asserts that money could indeed buy anything, she sounds like an oracle. There is no countervailing moral voice of freedom from such power, onstage or in the audience.

“Man ought to be free. But first he has to find out that he is a victim. And the function of the theatre is to show that, to show man that the only action that makes sense is an action toward freedom,” says Dürrenmatt. He cannot be shaken off. But in Krishnan's show, we don't yearn for that freedom. If Ravi dies, who cares? We still have the joyful actors.

So here lies a case of “complete theatre”, but with incomplete meaning.

PRAKASH BELAWADI

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