A man in all-black production attire shoots an audience with a camcorder in an almost lackadaisical manner. The footage is instantaneously projected on a large screen behind, in grainy black and white. There is the slightest of time-lags, and that unavoidable hand-held shakiness. Of course, the video is slightly less fluid than in real life (techies can blame that on the frames per second), and it is strangely voiceless. The sound is switched off, and that’s deliberate, but the silence is peculiar because the audience itself is in the midst of the very live action that the video seeks to capture and stream in real time. At Bandra’s Cuckoo Club, where the play Bundelkhand ki Virgin Machhliyan is being staged, we hear the shuffling of feet, whispers, and coughs, even giggles. On screen, we only see our speechless faces, pensive and skeptical. An actor (Gaurav Kunwar Singh), in the bare torso and shimmering ghagra asks us leading questions about our political affiliations and social compulsions, and the idea that emerges from those faces in the dark is that of collective complicity. Sometimes, when the camera is trained on us, we can do nothing more than simply look away.
When the play begins, the in-performance videographer shifts his attention to the actors. We see two enactments unfold almost simultaneously. There is the silent performance on the projection screen, with the change of perspectives and angles that accompanies the mercurial camera. There, a vintage-era Singh, with all the gender-fluidity of a stately male swan, holds the fort in some unknown warehouse where the attendees appear to be completely transfixed. It isn’t something that can be considered anything less than hypnotic. That is the power of the filmed image, because the actual performances by the ensemble, stilted and hesitant and even shrill, never match up to the replica on screen. It is often said that filming a theatre performance robs it of its ephemeral efficacy, making the actors seem distant or aloof, and the set-up all the more alienating. The synchronous beating of our hearts, that almost mythical idea, is replaced by the nothingness of anonymous viewing. Here, in this play directed by Sharmistha Saha, it is the reverse that, perhaps unwittingly, appears to be true.
However, it must be acknowledged that all the elements of Saha’s play, including the live projection, are part of its unique dramaturgical design. Our response to both these concurrent representations can speak of how and why propaganda works — since the play is set in an oppressive concentration camp whose inmates are devising a play that must present its horrors in a completely different light. Based on the 1972 Bengali novel, The Virgin Fish of Babughat, by Lokenath Bhattacharya, the play is certainly topical, but Saha’s use of her actors leaves much to be desired, even if her staging choices did completely transform the space in which her piece was performed.
In another example, at Andheri’s Harkat Studios, an arts venue, and co-working space, director Ashish Joshi configured his recent staging of three new monologues to match with the “found” characteristics of the space. One of the widely attended art events at the venue has been “The Museum of Ordinary Objects” – an ode to the inanimate objects that light up our lives both momentarily and enduringly. These minutiae of quotidian living provided an automatically textured backdrop to Joshi’s Love Matters, in which stories by the Malaysian writer, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, were presented by three actors (Dheer Hira, Sukhita Aiyar, and Rushab Kamdar). When it came to spectatorship, Joshi scattered his audience throughout the large room, with specific areas earmarked for the actors to negotiate — a mattress on the floor, a chaise lounge, a chair by a mantelpiece. It was suggested to the audience that they could move with the action, as it were, although once people found their stations, very few actually did. There is a certain nervousness that comes with being so close to living actors — not knowing how to response to a gaze or a smile, or a question — so the mechanics of the space and how it was used certainly provided more than just background to spoken pieces that were still inchoate in terms of their dramatization.
Cuckoo Club and Harkat are just two of several fringe venues that have sprung up across the Mumbai suburbs. These venues can seem characterless and uninviting when unoccupied, which is why more and more theatre groups are thinking outside the box when it comes to performing their treasured works in such spaces. At the end of the day, nothing can replace an actor’s craft. It is the performer’s artistry that stays with us more than anything else. Audiences can often take that desired leap of imagination on pure performance or just the turn of a phrase, so minimalism is still the cred that theatre wallahs swear by, but an inventiveness of presentation often adds volumes to a staging that could otherwise come across as uninspired.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.