Calcutta Notebook

The rating of plays pre sented by theatre groups in Kolkata can fluctuate from A plus to C minus, and you don't know what hand you have been dealt with even quite some time into the offering.

An old and established group led by a veteran of the stage has been presenting a piece called ‘Pinki Buli’ for quite some time now. Pinki is the daughter of the house, studying in an English medium school, and Buli is the maid, fresh from the countryside. Father and mother complete the family, the mother, apprehensive that Pinki would be picking up unsuitable habits, always assigning dips in her grades to the influence of Buli. Buli, in the mean-time, has her own problems coping with the sudden mood changes of the mother and the transformation of the tinker smith into a follower. Father is possessed of a sardonic humour, honed mainly on the foibles of his wife, but shares his wife's neurotic excesses about satisfying the teachers and improving grades .

This, the first part of the play is hugely entertaining. The acting is crisp and the exposure of the hollowness of the relationships and the absence of any higher motivation apart from show, convention and self-satisfaction in the inner life of the family at times touches the audience to the quick. The action on the stage seems to hold up a mirror before the assemblage. The meanness of the family and the generous mind of Buli, the exploitation and the hypocritical cover-up in the family's treatment of Buli challenge the patrons, are you any different? There are no moments of boredom largely because of the joie de vivre emanating from the character of Buli, an emanation which does actually influence Pinki, as foresaw by her mother.

But, then enters the veteran actor-director determined to transcend the limits of a polished commentary on social mores and ascend into the rarefied airs of surrealism. Dressed, too, according to the standard uniform of its western archetype, the guru, mouths gems of wisdom as expected. At one stage it seems that the aim of the whole exercise is to foster care for the environment. But, just as the country-bred simplicity of Buli is made the launching -pad for the earth-loving green message brought by the guru, earth-love is inflated into a blending with the universe. The unfortunate play ends with Pinki and Buli floating and swimming alongside the guru in air, rhythmically chanting the mantra of unity with everything under and beyond the sun.

A new Hamlet is always interesting. Shakespeare's basic drama is sufficiently strong to allow (and withstand!) a host of varying interpretations. Sir Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) is quintessential indecision, almost absent-minded. This is a major strand in Hamlet's character, but it is not all, and though the play focuses on the inner world of Hamlet, this, too, is not all, and the audience is liable to be bored if this side is overplayed, witness Tarak Nath Sen's reported impatience with Olivier's depiction of indecision through "endless climbing up and down staircases. " The Russian Hamlet (1964, directed by Kozintsev, music by Shostakovich, with a heavily slashed screenplay from the original translation by Pasternak) gave the full meat allotted by Shakespeare to the character of the new King, unlike earlier versions where the new King is a two-dimensional villain, a mere picture in Hamlet's mental life. Recently has come modernisation, and quite a few contemporarised presentations of the play, for example, an American Hamlet (2010) from Ephrata Performing Arts Centre with a Hamlet clad in jeans and sweater and an Ophelia in trousers and top. The new King is a political heavyweight, and the closeness of Horatio and Hamlet is claimed to have been given homophilic overtones.

Kolkata's new Hamlet suddenly sprouts contemporaneity in the last scene, the Shakespearean characters transforming into gangsters, with smoking guns. Everyone dies. It is difficult for the uninstructed theatre-goer to understand what happens and why. The isolated scene has no chance to blend with the drama already unfolded, which, therefore, fails to present any contemporary interpretation of the conflicts posed by Shakespeare.

As a Shakespearean play per se, however, the production is not bad, though not electrifying like Sreenyantu Comrades, the previous offering of the group. In fact, Bibhas Chakraborti succeeds in directing a feisty Hamlet, with a philosophy which appears, street-wise, almost camp compared to the Olympian heights of Sir Laurence's existential alienation. The success is in presenting yet a different Hamlet, after who knows how many Hamlets spawned by four centuries of endless milking.The translation unfortunately is ordinary and the great soliloquies come across flat, and, hence, bore the hearer instead of confronting him with the conundrums of human existence. It has become a sort of compulsion to race through Shakespeare's monologues, and this production is no exception. Had the soliloquies or the speeches before Ophelia or the actors been delivered slowly, the hearer would have had a chance to seize the drastic opinions and questions being presented to him in quick succession. The Ephrata play is careful to make Hamlet enunciate the soliloquies slowly and clearly.

Vol. 45, No. 8, Sep 2-8, 2012