Monday, November 23, 2009

Karnad in Punjabi, Shakespeare in Dutch

Girish Karnad emailed from India to say that I should see Neelam Mansingh Chowdry's production of his play Naga-mandala (Play with a Cobra) at Sadler's Wells. It's a fascinating piece of work - though not perhaps at its best in this vast theatre, and definitely not helped by the worst supertitle operator in recorded history. But the play is so strange and wonderful, and the leading actors make the transitions between characters incredibly powerfully. Chowdry has expanded on the doubling already present in the text, so that the same actor not only plays the husband and the cobra, but also the playwright in the prologue. Similarly the "Story" is also one of two performers who play Rani - so that role is doubled in a different way. The production actually becomes about those layerings and correspondences. And so about theatre as life.

The amazing production of The Roman Tragedies which I saw at the Barbican on Saturday is also about theatre as life. Political theatre and political life, to be precise. It's a version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra - all in six hours - by a company called Toneelgroep Amsterdam, directed by Ivo van Hove. I thought I was at least aware of the world's great directors - but his is a new name to me, and he is beyond doubt a really important artist. The production is "modern-dress" and multi-media - nothing new there - but in this case the use of video is so carefully shaped that it becomes about the way in which modern politics, modern life perhaps, is constantly performed from the camera, to the extent that only the image on the camera seems to carry any meaning. So, the scenes of private life (Coriolanus and his mother, Caesar and his wife) are filmed and relayed on TV and big screen - but all the scenes involving ordinary people, even soldiers, are cut. Not that there is any shortage of "the people" on display. The audience moves between their seats and the stage, where there are lots of sofas, and you can watch the highlighted action on a TV, as well as seeing the actors from another angle, choosing your own route of composition. This also means that you constantly see "ordinary people" in the play, consuming the action and so contributing to it. The form in which the theatre is used contributes to the meaning. There are no intervals as such, but lots of short breaks, during which sets are changed, and the audience buy drinks and food onstage, and contribute their thoughts on the show via a computer station - these are then relayed to the rest of us! So there's an element of real democracy about the whole thing. It raises endless questions about theatre and politics - not least whether politics might be turning into nothing but performance.

I've been thinking about this production ever since. Wonderful to be stimulated so strongly and to have my faith in the power of theatre so powerfully renewed.

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