Too much packed in too little space

ANUSHKA RAVISHANKAR is Chennai's own writer for children. She gave her pen a new slant at the playwright's workshop conducted by the Royal Court Theatre in Bangalore. Anushka says her script drew inspiration from a news report about a production based on the "Stanes incident" and the attack on the actor who played Stanes.

Madhav, a part-time activist, plays Stanes in a street theatre. For once he is a trifle too late tearing off his shirt, which is aflame. Shekhar, his one close friend, also on stage with him, who should have saved him, freezes into inaction.

Madhav's middle class family fails to come to terms with his death. His father, who moves with the help of a wheel-chair loses himself in anger, his little sister Suni goes into denial. Mother Janaki and wife Priya cope in silence as women usually do.

The play opens against this background. Shekhar moves in with the family to help, maybe out of a sense of guilt, maybe he just nabbed the vacancy he had always wished for himself. Suni finds in him her bhaiya, Priya a husband, that Madhav had failed to be.

It even turns out, that they had had a brief but meaningful relationship somewhere in the past.

Narayan finds peace and hands over the family business to the new son. Janaki, albeit grudgingly, acknowledges the process of healing. Shekhar turns allergic to cucumber, as Madhav had been. And then Shekhar becomes Madhav!!

The play, ``Phoenix," directed by Bhagirathi Narayanan, went on stage in Bangalore as a part of the Stage Rite Festival of new writing. It opened in Chennai early this week at the Alliance Francaise auditorium, where we have enjoyed some excellent plays from Bhagirathi.

As always Bhagirathi went into ``Phoenix" with an eye for detail and a carefully chosen cast and crew. But unlike the earlier productions, the play showed some strange gaps. While individual characters seemed well delineated and well delivered, somehow they seemed not to connect on stage. This seemed to have affected the pace and the energy level of the performance. The numerous pauses in the script didn't help either. Often it was like screeching to a halt at full clip, and then wondering why.

However, the performance managed to communicate the pall of doom and confusion the situation throws up.

The highlight of the evening was the newest and youngest entrant to Chennai's stage. Vishnupriya Das, as Suni, was simply wonderful. She (on her first time on stage) showed talent, understanding and maturity in approach far beyond her ten years. The scenes of bonding between her and Shekhar (Raghuram Avula) were sensitive and touching. In fact, Raghu says that Vishnupriya's understanding of what would work or not work on stage guided his performance a great deal.

Ejji as the frustrated, angry father jarred a little in the first half because he was so much louder than the rest of the cast but he came through very well in the transition to peace, calm and hope.

Indrani Krishnaier as Janaki was well delineated and gave a good performance. The two women in Shekhar's life, Priya (Neela Subramanian) and Manisha (Mala Govias) were a trifle vague, particularly in their response to their man. They could have formed an interestingly knit threesome.

A more relaxed script might have given the actors more space. Much like a novel, the script had too much to say and too many nuances, packed into too little time - the kind soap operas can take on in their many episodes. Another, very relevant way of looking at the situation is, should not an audience indulge a new playwright and give him or her the space to evolve.

In its technical aspects the production was very exciting, particularly with regard to lighting and music. Lighting design from Natesh was simple, never at any point overpowering the production. With minimum number of lights, in his characteristic way, he interpreted the script playing with shafts of light. It was sensitive and extremely poetic.

Sound from Sagar was of high quality. The music was well put together and was delightful, in that in a filmy way it built up the tempo, nudging the audience into predicting and expecting the next turn.

Like Goldilocks and the three bears, the Tata auditorium in Bangalore was too big for the sets and the Alliance Francaise auditorium too small. Nevertheless, the sets evoked very successfully the clutter of a middle class apartment.

The cast confessed they had a great time working on the production and they enjoyed a great deal of freedom from the director to explore and follow their instincts. There were also opportunities for introspection.

The playwright is thrilled with the production, particularly because it was very different from the way she had visualised the script in production. (She has written her third play, which she says in short but very, very different.)

The production raised some questions. Why do Indian family dramas (from both well established and relatively new playwrights) have to show the women always cooking, serving and cleaning?

Why are we afraid to show our women engaged in conversation with the rest of the family and allow the action to move on the strength of dialogue? How well will these naturalistic plays weather interpretation through abstract idioms and motifs and choreography - in direction?

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