Humour by Rehana Munir: Waiting in the wings
It’s a dangerous game to play, the ‘What do I miss most from pre-pandemic life?’ one. There’s so much that falls under the safety and human contact category that one feels awkward to even bring up anything connected to the higher faculties. But we are a species that easily dismisses awkwardness when it comes in the way of some good old-fashioned self-indulgence. So, here goes: I miss watching movies in the cinema hall a lot, but I crave live theatre even more.
I remember stepping into Mumbai’s Prithvi theatre as a child – that cosy bastion of the arts in the Bollywood-dominated suburb of Juhu – and watching some seriously terrifying theatre, clearly not meant for anyone below the age of 21. I still don’t understand why so much stage-acting still employs the outmoded theatrical device of too-loud or too-soft dialogue. Whatever the reason, it was traumatic for a child to watch the stalwarts of experimental theatre of the late 1980s and early ’90s quite frankly horrify the audience into submission. Chilling.
Decades later, my little niece complained about theatre that she thought tried too hard to please kids. Exaggerated gestures, loud make-up, far-fetched plots – she found it all too – dramatic. It made me wonder about the ethos of stylised drama, and how it often pointlessly sacrifices simplicity in order to achieve its ends. Watching The Lion King on the London stage a couple of years ago, I was moved to tears from the very first moment, when a procession of actors in imaginative animal costumes walked through the aisle and onto the stage, which magically expanded and contracted through the duration of the spellbinding show, just like in the stunning Les Misérables, that other West End crowd-puller.
All that glisters is not gold
If the big family entertainers are all about spectacle, there’s the other side to stagecraft, which is all about minimalism. So, often these days my mind goes back to Beckett’s masterpiece in which, as the Irish critic Vivian Mecier wrote in 1956, “nothing happens, twice.” Two tramps stuck in a nowhere place, waiting for Godot – a metaphor for god, or deliverance. Or if one were to transplant it to our current predicament, The Vaccine. What I remember from Motley Productions, apart from Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin’s Gilani’s memorable tramp talk, is the bare stage, save for a leafless tree, locating the non-action in a physical context, however stark. As eloquent a production design as you will see in any of the star-studded, tech-loaded, money-minting Broadway productions.
Many years ago, I found myself in Singapore for Shakespeare in the Park’s Merchant of Venice production. I fixed up to watch the play with an old friend then living in Singapore, a regular at these productions. We met on the Fort Canning Park, a historic hilltop venue, on a typically muggy evening. I, in a Shylockian move, arrived with a single can of ginger beer tucked into my back pocket. My friend, meanwhile, had carried a picnic basket that was a cornucopia of wine and cheese, cold cuts and fruit. A dramatic contradiction befitting the occasion.
Kindly switch off your mobile phones
Historical fiction has always been tricky territory, and it’s now especially complicated given our post-truth era. But when it comes off, it’s gratifying. Last year, in the thick of the lockdown, we were treated to the film version of the Broadway production, Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dramatised account of the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, is a hip-hop inspired musical with loads of street cred. The colour-blind casting, edgy dialogue, and progressive politics make it an absolute joy to watch. It’s streaming on Disney, if you’d like to experience that thrilling feeling of watching a big stage production in your own home.
So many theatre practitioners have taken their craft online, and this is a gift to us all. But I miss the energy and excitement of live theatre. That horrid moment when a play goes all interactive on you. The inveterate cougher. The sly texter. The awkwardness of backstage visits. Even the long queues outside the loo in the interval. Ok, strike that out. Staying home at all times has some benefits after all.
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From HT Brunch, May 23, 2021
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