In Ten Sentences Or Less [12] – Theatre of the Absurd – Act II

With most multinational Companies – past champions of niche events for niche audiences – having fled Kolkata for cities and local governments more friendly to business and less militant in their trade union pursuits, the mantle of keeping English theatre going (though, on the evidence of talent that I was to later discover, why that should be a priority remains one of life’s great conundrums) seems to have shifted to two of Kolkata’s most legendary Clubs, their annual staging of English plays by in-house talent veritable landmarks in the city’s overactive social and cultural calendar. So, in keeping with the competitive, not-always-so-friendly spirit that pervades Kolkata’s club scene, the first night’s performance of “Rumours” was preceded by a fusillade of publicity – lavish circulars, frequent SMS alerts, quarter-page press ads sponsored by the publication itself (the media owner being a respected and influential member of the Club’s executive committee and a past president to boot), seductive, multicoloured posters on bulletin boards and display windows of high-traffic shops on the city’s main street, et al although why such an avalanche of promotion was deemed necessary remains a mystery since entry was free and meant only for the Club’s members and their guests (among whom I featured) unless it was for the aggrandisement of the performers and to help them claim the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol, with great perspicacity, had predicted for everyone 50 years ago.

It was no surprise, therefore, to find the auditorium rented for the opening night – the Club not having one of its own – stuffed to the rafters with the who’s who of Kolkata’s English-speaking elite, which, by that definition, put the median age of the audience at 60-plus and bestowed upon the soon-to-be revealed actors the “young-ness” that an unexpected ceremony preceding the staging was at great pains to stress. The emcee, not to be denied his own share of Warholian renown, started by claiming 15 minutes of stage time and having quickly run out of superlatives to describe the performance to follow paraded before his captive audience, in quick order, the director whose debut effort this was, the president for showing faith in the Club’s intrinsic talent pool (or, more likely, approving the budget for the project) and several distinguished (though indistinguishable) people from the front row of the audience – Club members, all – for their invaluable contributions to the cause of English theatre, inducing from each person another speech of self-congratulation richly endowed with the superlatives he had run out of, not for want of trying nor any sense of modesty but, possibly, because his vocabulary did not extend that far.

Despite leaving no stone unturned to create a positive predisposition towards the performance including a Presidential address that seemed to suggest, with mild but unmistakable menace, that he had a personal stake in the project and any expressed dislike of the performance was tantamount, in a word, to rebellion and a flouting of Club etiquette punishable by debarment, I could not suppress a sense of shock (and awe) when the curtains finally parted and the protagonists were revealed, supposedly young, upwardly mobile, New York  suburbanites but who, in size, guise and demeanour could not transcend middle-aged, under-exercised, over-indulged Kolkata, fed on rich street foods and sweets, drunk on single malts and beer and garbed in dress that glaringly accentuated the unfortunate consequences of excess and intemperance when they were designed to do just the opposite. What followed was ninety minutes of dramatic anarchy as the actors, unrehearsed in their staging (or their memory impaired by years of Bacchanalian excess), stumbled about the stage in complete disarray, missing cues and comedic timing, hamming it up to distract from forgotten lines, addressing each other by the wrong names because of their unfamiliarity with them (Hank becoming Hal, Dick Mick, Jane Joan and Sally Molly), improvising with physical humour – of the sitting-on-a-nail, pie-in-the-face variety – when the playwright’s gems missed their intended mark (as they most often did), slipping accents with fluid looseness between Calcutta and California, New York and New Delhi,  Louisiana and Ludhiana or all three combined in one extended piece of dialogue and screaming like banshees (the women) or hollering like lumberjacks (the men) in moments of dramatic intensity, voice immoderation standing in for voice modulation in a misguided attempt to showcase histrionic ability.

But, if the rapturous, uninhibited, standing ovation at the end of the opening night’s performance was anything to go by, the show was an unqualified success and I the only alienated critic and dissenter, except that, as one of the rare non-members of the Club present in the audience that evening, I can afford to air an adverse opinion without fear of being blackballed or censured, although it’s improbable that another such invitation will ever come my way again (for which small mercy I’m not ungrateful).

Though, if the grapevine is to be believed (as indeed it should since in-house talent scouting is reported to have begun), its competitive spirit ignited by the “unqualified success” of Rumours, the Club that I am a member of – and hope to continue to be – is seriously contemplating a similar annual event starting with the staging of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, where, in a feat of unique oneupmanship that no other Club can match,  the horses the young protagonist has a pathological religious fascination for will actually come from the Club’s own stables; or so I’m told!

I quake at the prospect.

In Ten Sentences Or Less [11] – Theatre Of The Absurd: Act One

There was a time when English theatre, much like its Bengali counterpart, thrived in Calcutta (as the city was then known) with groups like The Amateurs, SAD (an acronym for the Society of Amateur Dramatics), the Calcutta Players and Red Curtain, among several others, staging plays – Miller to Mamet, Pirandello to Pinter, Stoppard to Simon; from the relentless dramatic suspense of Albee’s Zoo Story to the fantastical, funny, farcical antics of the shockingly surprising characters of Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce – of consistently high standards that, if it were Pinter or Albee, demanded serious acting chops of the main protagonists (who, at most, numbered two or three) to hold a discerning audience in thrall for the better part of 90 minutes without support of elaborate set decorations or frequent lighting changes or, as in the case of Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn, impeccable comic timing from an ensemble cast to keep the action fast, free and furious without overwhelming the audience with the frenetic pace and improvisational style that usually accompanies such productions. That the acting was of such high standard was even more remarkable when one considered that the participants were mostly boxwallahs – not travelling salesmen, with large boxes of clothes and jewellery to peddle door-to-door, after whom the term originated, but mid-level executives of multinational firms that at the time I speak of prodigiously dotted Calcutta’s commercial landscape – who held time-consuming day jobs (albeit not of a particularly taxing nature) and had professional career objectives to fulfill but were prepared to sacrifice quality time with family and friends at the altar of English theatre, pursuing it with a passion that others of lesser thespian talent reserved for golf, except that rehearsals usually tended to aggregate more hours in the four months to opening day than did golf in an equivalent time frame.

At the risk of being facetious, I tend to think that the decline of English theatre started with the change in the city’s name from the colonial ‘Calcutta’ to the countrified ‘Kolkata,’ in January 2001, not, perhaps on the exact day that the renaming happened nor in one all-destroying tidal swoop but the germ of decay, almost certainly, was insidiously planted then, gathering momentum in the years thereafter, growing and spreading, like a raging Trojan virus, unchecked, unstoppable and unrelenting.

Inheriting an incomparable, unparalleled and highly unique legacy like the Great Bengal Renaissance (circa 1872 – 1941), it was no surprise that till the end of the last millennium Calcutta, as I prefer to remember it as, dominated the Indian cultural scene continuing to produce modern giants in the fields of literature, cinema, music, dance and drama with almost monotonous regularity and though their English counterparts, born out of arts borrowed and, at best, only passionate pastimes for those who pursued them, were never in the same league (except for Indian writing in English which, arguably, was of a gold standard), some of the excellence bubbling in the local cultural cauldron must have spilled over to English theatre as well because the plays were staged with exceptional stagecraft and professionalism, some of the more regular actors going on to achieve international acclaim, one, in particular, becoming the biggest movie star India’s ever known.

So, I wasn’t particularly surprised to find on my return to Calcutta after 20 years that the cultural pot was still simmering merrily although the sheer number of people painting, sculpting, dancing, singing, writing books, spouting poetry or staging plays – a veritable tsunami of creative excess and narcissism – should have served as fair warning (if only one had not been blinded by the nostalgia of homecoming) that with everything else in the city in spiraling decline, it was highly unlikely that a second Bengal renaissance was in the making. Any false impressions I might have had in that regard were put to rest with the finality of death when, after nimbly avoiding countless glossy invitations – via electronic mail and maddeningly repeated Facebook posts – to book launches, poetry readings, art and sculpture shows, Bangla-rock band concerts, dance drama recitals, paid movie premieres, et al, one succumbed, in a moment of regrettable weakness, to an invitation to a performance of Neil Simon’s “Tumours” that was billed as a laugh riot, enacted by a cast of Kolkata’s most promising thespians, all members of one of the city’s most prestigious clubs once known – in its long-gone salad days – for its exclusive membership (by invitation only), strict adherence to the snootiest of dress codes, Friday buffets, Chinese cuisine and the extensive library where many of the books – gifts from departing Englishmen returning home after furling the Union Jack – rivaled the median age of the Club’s members.

[To Be Continued]