Sophocles, Antigone, Jean Anouilh, Satyadeb Dubey, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak, Motley theatre Mumbai, and a house full audience filled with great expectations….How does it look like? A great show in the offing! But no, it turned out to be a tragedy, - a tragedy that not even good theatre resulted.
It was 7.00 pm 27th November 2009, Jt Pac Thripunithura, Kerala and Motley Theatre presenting their play Antigone, an adaptation of Jean Anouilh play directed by the veteran Satyadeb Dubey, with a star-steaded cast from Naseeruddin Shah, Benjamin Gilani, Ratna pathak and others. It was a dismay that such a feeble performance resulted. Still as a ritual the audience clapped, exchanged 2 or 3 weak smiles, mostly silence and sighs around, and left the place disappointed.
The performance has nothing much to show, other than the celebrities as cast. It was no tragedy, not even melodrama; there was nothing political (as expected from an Anouilh version), nothing spectacular as expected from a Greek play, neither poetic, yes it has a lot of dialogues that was about life, politics, happiness, rituals, absurdity, idealism, heroism, and what not. The whole performance was drowned in the cascade of dialogues that did not carry the meaning effectively.
The performance did not succeed to transform the text to action, the written text to a performance text, a dramatic text to an enacted text. The first half was dull and cold like the corpse of Polynices remaining unburied. Benjamin Gilani was summing up the introduction as fast as he could, but without passion so that it did not reach the audience and gets registered there.
Antigone appeared like a weak fragile creature, little crazy and foolish. The characterization was wavering in between playfulness, brief moments of heroism, but mostly looked lost in fate or in an indefinite inaction. It was neither confusion, nor countering the arguments of Creon, but inaction – ‘doing nothing’. The acting, body dynamics and overall performance of Ratna Pathak resulted in a weak character, tired and aged, not even standing upright on her backbone; but flimsy, fragile, a chicken-hearted soul, at times innocent and timid like a kid, who cannot understand the gravity of her action or the meaning of the discourse happening in dialogues.
In the second half Naseeruddin Shah tried to cover the coldness of the corpse with his experience and histrionics that is natural to him. But he too was not succeeding enough to shoulder the otherwise dead static play on his shoulders. He too looked uncertain what to do, - a tragic hero, a loving uncle, a tyrant, a manipulator, a philosopher who reads through the kitchen politics and truth of life.…The preciseness of gestures, the rhythm and timing of actions, the clarity and precision of characterization, and link between the internal of the character to the external behavior etc. that are the signature of the acting of the legendary Naseeruddin Shah was missing in this play. He was speaking his dialogues – of course with clarity of diction – and moving around pointing and shaking his hands to Antigone, leaning and sitting on the table and chair, stooping as a hopeless uncle, and wavering on his feet at moments of tragedy, and all these action was not connected to create Creon, the Sophoclean tragic hero or the political manipulator/tyrant of Anouilh. His character of Creon does not represent the ‘State’ through the acting, physicality, but is a loving middle-class uncle, who argues out to his insipid niece urging to keep her away from some stupid idiosyncrasy and fails.
It is clear from the editing of the text that the emphasis of the performance was on the argumentative unit between Creon and Antigone which allows the actors space to ‘perform’; the final portion and the deaths of Haemon and that of Eurydice is summarized by quick narration. The famous distinction between ‘tragedy’ and ‘melodrama’ spoken by the chorus in the Anouilh text is underlined in the dialogues; ironically, the scene of confrontation between the pragmatism of Creon and Idealism of Antigone slowly proceeds to melodrama.
The technical aspects also are not that much worthy to discuss. The columns, table, chair, and other materials look wooden and match the wooden coldness of the production! The mostly bare stage looked empty and vacuum, even if great talents were occupying the stage, and the lights should have at least hidden the vacuum and focused the audience attention to the actors. The space and time of action is nowhere, not Thebes, nor France or India, nor anywhere specific; it does not mean that it reveals a universal truth.
The costumes are also a mix up western outfits, cowboy boots; contemporary army uniform, north Indian Shervani and shawls, Muslim veil and Burqua etc and do not pitch the play anywhere specific.
In brief I have to summarize that this production from the highly rated and respected company of artists do not belong to good theatre, but is very ordinary. This is not the best of Indian theatre not even unto the ordinary material from beginners. It is high time that someone tell Motley to have a serious look onto the kind, nature and quality of the theatre they are doing and is expected from them. Forget about the rave reviews and blind superlatives from the print/visual media that the stardom of Naseeruddin shah and others in the company fetches
Also I am to clarify that I am not a person who enjoy criticizing others; I have taken this response and position after much thought; I have to tell nothing but the truth, in the good spirit of it.