At the Bayside Café in Mumbai, Shanta Gokhale watches the industrial theatre co. stage a radical new play
It was called Eight
Saturday, 15th November, 2003
The phone had rung and I had been told there was a play on at the Bayside Café.
Eight shows. You must choose yours.
You must say yes or no. Now. We must have 18 people round the table at every show.
Yes. We can't have gaps. So when will you come? Tomorrow?
It was called Eight I believe. There was no announcement before the play to say what was what, or who was who. We were kept in the dark, unsuspecting of what lay in store for us. It was only later that I discovered the play had been shaped out of eight monologues written by Naveen Kishore. They were not written for theatre, and yet they were full of dramatic potential. Tough, dense, esoteric and lacking a straight narrative form, they weren't exactly the kind of stuff directors were going to line up for. But the industrial theatre co. is different. Its "gang of four"-- Pushan Kripalani, Rehaan Engineer, Karan Makhija and Nadir Khan, make it a habit of going where others fear to tread.
Naveen Kishore's monologues were sufficiently challenging for them to roll up their sleeves and get down to work. Questions abounded. Where was such a piece to be done? How could it be presented? With one actor or more? A long and difficult process followed, in the course of which the chosen actors, Rehaan Engineer, Shanaya Rafaat and Mehrangiz Acharia, had to find their way into the monologues. Given a free hand by the writer, they resequenced, edited and pruned the monologues to impose, as Pushan Kripalani the director explains, "a narrative structure on them that would allow the actors to engage with the script and interact with each other." And so three characters emerged, the man, played by Rehaan, the girl he dreams about, played by Mehrangiz, and his ex-wife, played by Shanaya.
To discover and popularise alternate spaces for theatre has been one of the founding principles of the industrial theatre company. As a matter of fact, it takes its name from its favourite theatre space - the premises of Mumbai's shut down textile mills. They staged their Agamemnon in Sakshi Gallery, housed in an old mill, with a high ceiling and an iron-railing gallery running around three sides.
The Bayside Café was a different story. We were in a low-ceilinged mezzanine, seated around a long rectangular table covered in red. At the head sat Rehaan; diagonally across the table from me was Mehrangiz; and to my right, beyond my immediate neighbour Karan, sat Shanaya. That's how close we were to the actors. And all of us, actors and audience, were equally lit. "That made your reactions part of the performance," says Pushan.
Well thanks. Was someone watching our performances? That's nasty. The performers had spent three weeks perfecting their facial expressions. We on the other hand were being shocked out of our wits by what they were saying. Our mouths probably hung open! But never mind. The point is, that in choosing to stage the play in a way that turned the audience into participants, the director was taking on yet another challenge. What if we had fidgeted, yawned or shuffled? Entirely possible, given the difficult script and performances confined to voice, facial expression and occasional gestures.
But the fact is that we did not fidget, yawn or shuffle. The concentrated energy of the performers and the intensity of their gaze whether they were looking at each other, into space or at us, caught and held us. Meanwhile the text that they spoke was filled with deeply troubled questions and intriguing, painful, graphic images. "I see limbs coiled around dark pieces of furniture. I see them turning corners of rooms in empty houses"; "Every time I shut my eyes to sleep I wake up in a room full of wine glasses. Like an upside down house of cards. Hanging from ceiling to floor". Eight (if it was called that), was a grim, dark, cruel, punishing play. Sexual violence, nightmare, scatology, disintegrated bodies, blood-dripping memory, poured their jagged blacks and reds into it. There was no distance between us and them. Their eyes sometimes stared directly into ours. We stared back in sympathy, sensing their pain but not always able to understand its source. Words come hurtling at you in long passages or in staccato dialogue, full of fast moving ideas, chains of associations obeying some internal logic that you could not make immediate sense of. Yet you were held because the words were resonant in sound, varied in rhythm, cadence and vocal texture. The last line spoken, the audience sat back. It breathed out. Gradually, muscles relaxed. A comforting realization came creeping in, that we would soon be in control of our lives again. But before that, one last bit of social awkwardness remained. No curtain had dropped to shield our movements from the makers of the play. They were all there, standing in the shadows, beyond the table covered in red. We were their invitees. You could not walk out. Yet most of us were simply too stunned to say anything even remotely sensible. For the rasikas, it had been an evening of haunting theatre. Their palates were trained to "enjoy" even theatre that deliberately set out to shock.
Most people in the other shows, says Pushan, were quiet, shell shocked. Some said they would talk to him later, but never did. Others were full of questions. Don't you have any happy thoughts? Why do you do this kind of play?
So why do they?
"Because we feel it is incumbent upon us to do theatre that offends," says Pushan. Terrific. For there are enough people around, and their numbers are growing, who are bending over backwards to "give the audience what they want" as the popular statement goes. May their tribe decrease.