Trilogy on stage

Print edition : February 09, 2007

From Mohammad Aghebati's "Jocasta", which formed the second part of "Performing Women".-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama presents three women-centred myths in an ambitious collaborative work.

EXPERIMENT and theatre should be - but are not always - synonymous. Bharat Rang Mahotsav 2007, the annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama (held from January 6 to 21 in New Delhi), the biggest theatre festival in India, did present an ambitious project in "Performing Women: Medea, Jocasta and Clytemnestra".

Younger directors from three nations collaborated in this trilogy. Ovlyakuli Khojakuli (Uzbekistan) chose Medea, Mohammad Aghebati (Iran) dramatised the Oedipus myth, while Abhilash Pillai (India) brought Clytemnestra to the stage. The first two used a single language, their own, while Abhilash Pillai chose a multilingual mix to reflect his country. Supertitles on the screen kept the audience in the loop, essential for ventures of this kind, especially when these contemporary readings deviated sharply from the familiar framework.

The project was masterminded by the Japan Foundation to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the cultural agreement between Japan and India, as part of the events scheduled in this Japan-India Friendship year.

As if the translators were not kept busy enough, the technical crew (in charge of set, lighting, sound and production, and stage management) came from Japan. In addition, Professor Tadashi Uchino, from the University of Tokyo, served with NSD faculty member and theatre director Anuradha Kapur as project adviser.

Each director spent several months rehearsing his segment and was given 20 days in Delhi to connect the parts for the festival premiere. The show is scheduled to travel to Japan in October.

In 2005, the Foundation's earlier multinational theatre venture had involved neighbours India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Understandably, the theme for the show, "The Memoirs of Babur", came from the subcontinent itself - from the Baburnama.

However, this year, the Asian nations connected to "Performing Women" have chosen women-centred myths of European origin, aiming thereby to "present and share a new world view". The three redoubtable, even eerie, archetypes are sought to be shaped as metaphors for the many ravelled issues of contemporary times that refuse to fit into neat, convenient, black-and-white slots.

After betraying her father to help Jason win the Golden Fleece, Asian sorceress Medea has two children by the Greek hero. Medea then follows him to Hellas, but Jason abandons her and his children to marry Greek princess Glauca and succeed her sonless father Creon as king. Creon exiles Medea as a troublemaker, and Jason demands that she leave her children behind. When her pleadings of love and loyalty, and for mercy, fall on deaf ears, Medea takes a terrible revenge. She kills her rival with poisoned garments, and her own infant children.

Jocasta's story is simpler. When her royal husband Laius dies, she marries Oedipus, not knowing that he is her abandoned son. The hero had saved the state by answering the Sphinx's riddle. But Jocasta's own riddle is too bizarre for solutions. When the truth is revealed, Oedipus puts out his eyes with his wife-mother's brooch, while Jocasta hangs herself.

The most complex myth is that of Clytemnestra. Her first husband is killed by Agamemnon who then succeeds to his throne and wife. Appalled when Agamemnon sacrifices daughter Iphigenia for success on the battlefield, she finds happiness with Aegisthus through the long years of the former's Trojan campaign. She kills her husband on his return and is in turn killed by son Orestes.

Scenes from Ovlyakuli Khojakuli's "Medea".-

All three myths have been reinterpreted through the centuries. In modern and post-modern revaluations, these archetypes become perfect examples of colonialism, patriarchy, political aggrandisation, subaltern victimisation and racial oppression.

Intercultural, multilingual theatre is a challenge of its own kind. The choice of powerful, haunting-through-the-ages myths certainly lubricated the communication process.

So did the fact that all three directors worked with images rather than concepts, striving to make the auditory track as dense, forceful and multi-levelled as the visual. An added interest was that the tryptich had men's perspectives on women archetypes. The fact that the directors came from extremely patriarchal societies gave an edge to their iconoclastic interpretations.

The difficulties in collaboration are best brought out in Japanese designer Daisuke Nakayama's note. Meeting the directors for the first time, he notes their differences in background and cultural ideas of "women". Khojakuli knows clearly what he wants. Abhilash Pillai is ready to be flexible. Aghebati is uneasy about diverting from known ways. "Constructing a single stage for three opinionated, professional directors... my mental breakdown may be closer than I thought," said Nakayama.

All three directors had rich resources to draw from at will in their own distinct cultures. And they did. The Uzbek play was the work best realised - Khojakuli wove his story with dazzling images from his land and people while keeping the core theme intact. He also layered the text with strands from three versions - of Sophocles, Seneca and Russian writer Ludmilla Razumovskaya's prose text.

Khojakuli's script in Russian is a recitative performance piece, heightened in emotionalism with Uzbek singing forms. His actors did not speak, they declaimed and intoned their dialogues, often achieving a sombre hymnal quality. They also played simple instruments, with the drums producing heart and pulse beats. The actors played individual characters, but also melded into choric refrains with a charged choreography of vocal modulation and physical movement. Somehow, Khojakuli managed to retain the individual features of his characters through these orchestrated synchronisations.

Striking visuals included Glauca bathing in milk behind the hand-held curtain of the Golden Fleece, and the water-splashing rituals of the lovers.

The costumes added flow, colour and depth. To no small extent was his main actor, Zulaykho Boykhonova, responsible for the heightened impact. Her Medea was convincing as sorceress and prophet, volcanic, as also full of domestic virtues. As wife and mother no less than as avenging fury, she showed dignity, power, poignancy and extreme precision. Not a single glance, not the slightest gesture, was wasteful or out of place. The look in her eyes as she finally `murdered' her children sent chills down the spine. It had a tragic inevitability.

On the whole, the myths were too strong for delicate nuancing. Even the simplest strokes acquired eerie potency, shadows dazzled like stark lights. That is how darkness became a glare and silence a scream in Aghebati's "Jocasta". Even the sounds of human breath acquired larger-than-life magnitude. That something is rotten in the state was indicated with Jocasta's references to shit at start and end. Khojakuli's poetry in "Medea" is replaced by Aghebati's prose in "Jocasta". The words are flat, overt, a paradoxical parallel to the bizarre relationship on the stage. Then suddenly, an unobtrusive passage flashes into our psyche as when blind Oedipus says, "It was like returning home, penetrating the streets on a cold wintry night."

There are long spells of darkness through the action, some tedious. They underlined the theme of human blindness, folly, and victimisation. They also pointed to the inevitability of the action unfurling on the stage. Oedipus cannot resist Jocasta. Nor can Jocasta fail to succumb to his need. Modern psychology meets classical myth in the dark moments. The play also attempts to weave other strands to question accepted concepts. The characters refuse to accept their fate but try to rebel against man-made rules of right and wrongdoing, partly convincing, partly contrived. Cigarette-smoking, television-surfing and so on by Jocasta seemed self-conscious attempts at modernisation. The story is frighteningly real without them.

Aghebati's skill lay in minimalism, and in the adroit blocking of scenes, each ending at a moment when you wanted to know more. It was also obvious in his use of objects and devices like the bed out of which characters tumble more than they sleep.

The outstanding moment came when Oedipus removed his slender mask and burnt tiny flames through the eyeholes. This visual was ghastlier than any realistic attempt at the deed could be.

There are long spells of darkness through the action in "Jocasta", underlining the theme of human blindness, folly and victimisation.-

Pillai's Indian segment came after midnight (the play began at 9.45 p.m.) when the viewer's eyes and mind were exhausted by so much emotion already, not to speak of having watched three other plays through the day. It was too much to absorb though the spectacular use of colours, costume and lights was in a vein that extended the ambience of the play as a whole.

"Medea" had an incessant soundtrack, while "Jocasta" overstretched its silences. Clytemnestra was loud. However, with more performance honings, and the resultant cutting, editing and tightening, "Performing Women" is sure to do its directors and the Japan Foundation proud.

The title makes you think. Did these "Performing Women" have a reality behind the assumed roles? What lay in each character behind the performance?

In the first show the directors did not quite succeed in finding the quintessential person behind the persona. What we saw was the archetype gazed at through a chiaroscuro. So where to look for that core of identity within the shifting masks, costumes, lights and roles? Is this the responsibility of the director - or the audience?

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