Beyond the 4th Wall

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Cold comfort Bikram Ghosh and Krittika Bhattacharjee in a scene in The Winter’s Tale
Cold comfort Bikram Ghosh and Krittika Bhattacharjee in a scene in The Winter’s Tale Photo: Ankit Agrawal

AS THE audience watched with trepidation, the imposing figure of King Leontes, consumed with jealousy while waiting for the Apollo’s Oracle to pronounce judgment and confirm his wife’s infidelity, told off an audience member who was blocking the actors’ aisle. Some thought it was part of the act. Actor Bikram Ghosh, playing Leontes, admitted he got carried away by the intensity of channelling the ire of the protagonist, in the play The Winter’s Tale, staged recently in the enchanting forest- like space of Zorba the Buddha, at the Global Arts Village in Delhi. The actors were following an intriguing and, rather physical, technique of acting developed by Russian playwright Michael Chekhov, called Psychological Gestures, a precursor to method acting. The audience on their part, was following the actors as they moved around enacting various scenes at different locations.

Though there was a buzz before and around the staging of the play, it didn’t quite capture the magnitude of the production. The Winter’s Tale managed to sweep the audience off its feet. Full disclosure: I watched it twice, once for work, and then for play. I did worry that the mystique would be broken the second time, that even the mere anticipation of the audience’s response would spoil the experience. But it turned out to be even better, in filling the previous gaps in understanding, loosening the language knots, and enriching the vocabulary.

The enactment of The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works (it was written later in life, and is harder to read, let alone act out) in archaic English as well as in a poetic translation in Hindustani was an incredible feat. The Hindi/ Urdu parts segued well into the scenes and managed to retain the rhythm and metre of the original verses while the lush, undulating landscapes of Zorba, dotted with lily ponds and hillocks, heightened the experience.

Directors Neel Chaudhuri (Tadpole Repertory) and Anirudh Nair (Wide Aisle productions) chose Tanzil Rehman for the daunting task of translating the verses into Hindustani. Rehman, who had no prior experience of translating Shakespeare, managed to evoke the cadence of the original English. “Like the original verse, I was trying to alternate the language as spoken by the nobility and the peasantry. Urdu in the former, and Hindi/Hindustani in the other,” says Rehman, an Urdu poet who works as a management consultant by day.

Chaudhuri points out the unique position an audience in Delhi enjoys, that of being bilingual. “It’s a luxury for us that around 70 percent of the audience can comprehend English and Hindustani. It makes theatre a richer experience. You don’t see that happen in the West.”

The duality of language helped emphasise the duality inherent in the play, “contrasting the claustrophobic arena of the palace, with the pastoral countryside in the second half,” explains Nair. It’s reproduced well, but Chaudhuri and Nair maintain that there is no political aspect to the choice of language.

Each of the three acts of the play was performed at a different location. A flock of volunteers quietly and efficiently herded the audience around to the appropriate spots. The sets were minimal and the lighting so spot-on, that the actors and the stages seemed to appear out of nowhere, and vanish into thin air. A starry darkness overhead, with chirping crickets, croaking frogs, and an owl taking flight from a backlit treetop in a final scene on one of the nights, turned out to be the unintentional props.

The Winter’s Tale was chosen as it also enabled the directors to work with a diverse set of actors. Of the 12 actors, some are fulltime, while some are returning to stage after a break. The production is a clever example of scrupulous use of space and resources. In the absence of any endowments, such endeavours should be encouraged in every possible way. Twenty private benefactors had pledged their support to the production.

“The sets and costume designs by Madhav Raman and Mayank Mansingh Kaul came at a reasonable price. We used to do these things ourselves, but farming it out to the specialists is a better idea,” says Chaudhuri. There was a ‘pay what/if you like’ option on the way out too, though that was due to Zorba being a private space.

Some members of the audience, like theatre veteran, Maya Krishnarao, were inspired to revisit the original play by Shakespeare. “But I felt they could have packed some more nuance in the language,” she said. For most others, the novelty of the production made up for any gaps.

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