Shakespeare in Contemporary Calcutta Theatre

Feb 5, 2013 (Calcutta Tube): In Calcutta Theatre there had a time when Utpal Dutta and Shakespeare were synonyms.  In 1953 Little Theatre Group started their journey with Shakespeare staging selected portions from Merchant Of Venice. That was the beginning. This journey concluded in 1975 with Macbeth under the banner of PLT. In between Utpal Dutta directed  Julius Ceaser (1956), selected parts of Twelfth Night (1956), Othello (1958), Mid Summer Night`s Dream as Chaitali Rater Swapna (1964) etc. Utpal all together directed seven Shakespearean dramas, but he never tried Hamlet.

Calcutta in the recent past (2010) has experienced Mid Summer Night`s Dream’s Bengali version “Dream Dream” (adopted by Partho Chatterjee and directed by Debesh Chatterjee under the banner of “Sansriti”) and little before that we watched Chhattisgadi version of the same of Shakespeare, directed by Habib Tanbir and produced by Naya Theatre in pure folk form.

But the same translation of Mid Summer Night`s Dream done by Utpal Dutta, when taken up by a young woman director Abanti Chakraborty under the banner of Anya Theatre in Dec 2012, the production simply startled the Kolkata audience. I had the opportunity to watch in my early days the LTG production by Utpal Dutta almost more than 40 years ago which is little difficult to remember on my part. But I clearly can compare Chaitali Rater Swapna produced by the then Govt. Of West Bengal in the nineties and directed by Utpal Dutta himself, with that produced by Anya Theatre and directed by Abanti the great. I can thus emphatically conclude, Abanti`s “Midsummer…” is far more enchanting, smart, thought provoking, contemporary, and fantastically tuned than that of Utpal Dutta himself. We are ought to hats off for Arna Mukherjee (Pac), Nandini Bhowmik (Hippolita), Nibedita Mukherjee (Taitania), Turna Das (Helena), Susmita Hati (Harnia), Kamal Chatterjee (Bottom), Chandan Sen (Peter Queens) and other actors, Soumik-Piyali for unique stage craft, Dipak Mukherji for light, Arna Mukherjee and Abanti Chakraborty for music and last but not the least Abanti Chakraborty, the Director. We must congratulate Anya Theatre the producer, who offered an young director to work with MidSummer Night`s Dream. The two other earlier productions we were talking about, Dream Dream is a product of confused thought process and that of Habib Tanbir has nothing to do with Shakespeare. By and large Habib`s one was a marvelous folk production.

Based on the translation of Shakti Biswas, Anya Theatre has very recently produced William Shakespeare`s Hamlet. In this context we may place the note of Bibhash Chakraborty, the Director of the play .   ‘…. Once I had started work on my friend Ali Jaker`s play Darpan, inspired by Hamlet. It was subsequently dropped. Sometimes later I was drawn towards Bangladeshi poet Samsur Rahaman`s translation of Hamlet. After editing and rewriting a portion of it I read out the text to my Anya Theatre`s friends. They liked it, but that too was abandoned. After a lapse of about five years I started toying the idea of producing Hamlet again. But at that time Samsur Rahaman`s translation was nowhere to be found. So I started working on a translation of Shakti Biswas, an ex-PLT friend. Just before completion of the play script Samsur Rahaman`s translation resurfaced. But by that time the poet has left us, and my other script was almost complete. Even at that stage the poet`s inputs were incorporated in the final text. …… Hamlet has remained a great contemporary play through the ages. Yet a few questions stormed my brain during the entire process of the creative exercise. Why Hamlet now? Is any interpretation or viewpoint expected? Does Shakespeare use his stories only as vehicle to communicate his keen observations and deep feelings about life and human beings at all levels? The language is also very important factor, and more so, when it is translated into another language. Should there be a distinct style of acting and speech? For me honest effort is the thing. `

A scene from the play Hamlet
A scene from the play Hamlet by Anya Theatre

As we all know the ending in Shakespeare`s Hamlet where Hamlet himself arranging the hanging of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern foiling the conspiracy hatched by Claudius to kill Hamlet. Ophelia, distraught over her father’s death and Hamlet’s behavior, drowns herself. Her brother, Laertes falls next. The lethal poison in the sword of Laertes kills himself. Before he dies, Laertes tells Hamlet that because Hamlet has already been cut with the same sword, he too will shortly die. And finally Hamlet kills Claudius. But in Anya Theatre`s play as soon as the arranged fencing starts, there happens enormous firing all around and eventually after the hustle and bustle are over Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet are  found dead. This improvisation is a round up. Anya Theatre`s play starts with a prologue narrating a contemporary event of fake encounter where four persons were killed in a Park Street pub. Among them one was a friend of the pub owner. Before dying in the pub he asked his friend to tell this story of unjust killing to “the yet unknowing world”. Surprisingly in the original play, before dying, Hamlet makes the same request to his bosom friend Horatio. This prologue is rounded up in the ‘epilogue` where the auditorium is startled with the sound of rampant firing.  And it`s a brilliant coincidence that the off voice of the person killed in the Park Street pub is the same voice of the actor who played the role of Hamlet in Anya Theatre`s production. Thus we found an interpretation which we may like or may not.

In recent times Calcutta Theatre experienced Hamlet from Bibhash Chakraborty (Anya Theatre) and Raja Lear (King Lear translated) from Suman Mukherjee (Minarva Natya Charcha Kendra). These two productions thread bear excavate tragic power crisis inside monarchy where at the end, we watch monarchial corpses in a row. It is a life time achievement on the part of a spectator to experience Soumitra Chatterjee as Raja (King) Lear. After legendary Soumitra, we ought to mention the name of an young talent  Ankita Majhi as Cordelia. Other names to be mentioned are Biswanath Chakraborty as Gloster, Bimal Chakraborty as Kent and Anirban Mukherji as Edmund. Stage craft of both Hamlet and Raja Lear are in a word outstanding. But to talk about Raja Lear it is unique in Calcutta Theatre so far. We have earlier witnessed two-tier stage, but in Raja Lear it is not only multi-tier, but even the fly parch has been brilliantly used which we have never ever witnessed in Calcutta. Moreover this utilization can only be made possible in Minarva Theatre only and in no other auditorium in Calcutta.

A scene from the play Macbeth
A scene from the play Macbeth by Krishnanagar Theus

But this crisis and conflict within monarchy is much more exposed by Shakespeare in his Julius Caesar and in his shortest play Macbeth. So far the brightest Macbeth in Calcutta theatre has been produced by Utpal Dutta. In my early days and in my middle age too I have had the opportunity to watch Utpal Dutta as Macbeth and Shova Sen as Lady Macbeth. I have also watched Shekhar Chatterjee as Macduff in LTG`s Macbeth at old Minarva Theatre. Anyway by gone is by gone.

The contemporaries are ‘Caesar` produced by  Natya Anan, directed by Chandan Sen and Macbeth produced by Swapnosandhani, directed by Koushik Sen. This Caesar is star studded. Famous actor Sabyasachi Chakraborty has played the role of Caesar himself, Shantilal Mukherjee played as Mark Antony, Sagnik as Brutus, Bindia Ghosh as Julia,  Miska Halim as Calphurnia and Soma Naha as Portia. Joy Sen has made the lights, Debojyoti Mishra scored the music and Madan-Tinku made the stage. Translation and direction is by Chandan Sen, who played a small role too. The first show of Chandan Sen`s Caesar took place on 21st May, 2012 and incidentally or eventually Mamata Banerjee took her oath as Chief Minister of West Bengal in 20th May 2011. It might be a mere coincidence or might be out of specific deliberation. Since Caesar and Macbeth are the fascist protagonist drawn by Shakespeare and since Macbeth too was also first staged by Kaushik Sen on 29th May 2012, the point of organized deliberation can in no way be ruled out. During CPIM`s rule of 34 years at least 34 mass killings occurred and as per statistics 55 thousand people has been killed during this period starting from Marichjhapi to Nandigram. At that moment, neither groups along with their leaders Chandan or Kaushik could manage time to launch either Caesar or Macbeth, but now when during the one year rule of Mamata there is no mass killing no such autocracy, Chandan and Kaushik even distorting the original Shakespeare came up to serve CPIM in a very nasty way. Otherwise this can be explained taking help of the crisis created by their male domination chauvinism. Thus there are attempts to mar Shakespeare in the contemporary Calcutta Theatre with Caesar and Macbeth. But that is not all about Macbeth experienced in Kolkata. In a festival organized by Shohan we had the opportunity to watch Ek Tukro Macbeth (A small spell of Macbeth) produced by Krishnanagar Theaas. In this play the inner conflict of Macbeth has been dealt with very nicely. So it is Macbeth versus Macbeth. The roles enacted by the director Suman Goswami and Rajib Dutta the discourse of which is memorable.

A scene from Bengali play Ceaser by Chandan Sen
Bengali play Ceaser by Chandan Sen

On the other hand Prachya production Romi And Juli adopted brilliantly from Romeo And Juliet and intermingling smartly and intellectually the contemporary Calcutta is enriched with an outstanding directorial work of Biplab Banerjee. The reader may please have a look on what Biplab says about their play.

‘It is love and only love that transcends and rises above venomous hatred and jealousy. But love does not always win. Romeo and Juliet lie dead; a death of innocence and passion. The richness of eternal truth in the plays of Shakespeare transcends centuries and touches our heart in present times. In our own way we are inspired and energized to create a new text. Let us imagine that William Shakespeare’s immortal text Romeo and Juliet is being taught at a premier educational institution in the city. The lesson is being imparted by two professors. Love blossoms between them. Traditional rigid and puritanical Brahmin blood courses through the veins of the woman. Her lover belongs to a schedule caste and that makes her fear his love. And in the class that they teach belong Romi and Juli. They live near each other but  like the enmity that was present between the Montagues and the Capulets in the original play, the families of Romi and Juli are engaged in a longstanding feud. Unreal and real merge while the play is being taught in class. Romi and Romeo become one, Juli becomes Juliet. Friar Lawrence is the local marriage registrar. We travel in and out of the play, Romi and Juli’s story takes a different turn but retains the structure and essence of the Bard himself. Death inevitably immortalizes romance. The two professors choose to end their lives rather than accept the fact that being together is not an option for them. But as usual, time does not stand still. And the language of life starts speaking from among the debris of dead bodies. They live and act out the death scenes to prove that love is the answer to  hatred. Romi O Juli is a testament of our present times which follows the original text and its journey. At the same time our voices reverberate along with the original play and creates an unique experience.’

In this production Ranadip Basu, the grandson of Soumitra Chatterjee nicely played the role of Romi and that too of Juli played by Shnaoli Mukherjee. The stage craft done by Partho Mazumder, light design by Dipak Mukherjee, other crafts by Hiran Mitra and the outstanding music by Dishari Chakraborty.

Though not produced by Calcutta groups, two more Shakespeare dramas we had the privilege to watch at Kolkata in Nandikar`s 29th National Theatre Festival. Of the two, Romeo Juliet and Seven Clowns was a fantastic production made by CEVA Drama Rep. Co. Chandigarh, directed by a young lady Sukhmoni Kohll.

‘Romeo Juliet and Seven Clowns’- devised in a workshop – is an attempt to go beyond the traditional idea of the clown (the white painted face and red nose that make people laugh) and to introduce the idea of the clown as an essential part of our human soul, the soul which is ‘ready for anything’. Clowning is not only being funny, the clown`s red nose, the smallest mask in the world, is the mask that unmasks. Clowning is like being in love. A clown like a lover requires acceptance so that it can become vulnerable and attempt the impossible. And that is what Romeo and Juliet did culturally; they connect to the clown as they connect to the Sufi tradition. The play ‘Romeo Juliet And Seven Clowns’ hopes to remind the audiences of the clown that is within each of us, waiting to put on its small red nose.

And in the same arena we had the opportunity to watch the Bengali version (made by Rubayet Ahmed) of The Tempest produced by Dhaka Theatre, Bangladesh and directed by Nasiruddin Yusuf.

King Alonso and King Fardinand`s ship is wrecked. Watching the shipwreck from a nearby island Prospero reveals to his daughter Miranda that he has caused the storm and that he was once the King, but was usurped by his brother Antonio who is also in board. With the help of his spirit Ariel and his own magic powers Prospero brings the men to safety. Fardinand and Miranda fall in love and get married, ensuring that the royal line is returned to the family of the rightful King. Prospero`s slave Caliban joins with the ship`s jester and butler to overthrow Prospero`s island rule. His plot is intercepted by Prospero`s spirits but at the end he is given the freedom he has sought. Alonso and Antonio are made to realize their wrongs and finally forgiven by Prospero.

But this story has been told by Dhaka Theatre in a very clumsy way. This reminds us of Ramaprasad Banik`s marvelous directorial work on The Tempest in the early nineties under the banner of Theatre Passion. The Tempest of Ramaprasad was far better than that of Nasiruddin.

We are on the verge of conclusion. And it will be concluded with an unthinkable production of Nandikar- ‘Hridmajhare’ adopted from Shakespeare`s As You Like It. As You Like It was once intimately produced by Anya Theatre and was Directed by Bibhash Chakraborty at Sarala Memorial Hall auditorium (not in the proscenium). Inspired by As You Like It Kanchan Amin wrote “Hridmajhare`. And eventually the play was group-directed by Supriya Chakraborty, Kamal Chatterjee and Sohini Sengupta.

Having deprived Virendra Mohan of their paternal fortunes, the scheming younger brother, Girindra Mohan turns him out of their house. Virendra Mohan seeks shelter in the forest. The trees, the river, the birds and animals become his kith and kin. Virendra Mohan`s only daughter Hritusha (Bindia Ghosh) grows up in her uncle`s house in extreme negligence and falls in love with Anindya (Anirban Ghosh), son of her father’s friend. Girindra Mohan turns Hritusha out of his house and Anindya`s elder brother (Anirban Raychowdhury) conspires to murder him. Hritusha along with Simanti (Ipsita Debnath), her very dear cousin – turns up in the same forest where Hritusha`s father had found shelter several years ago. Anindya, too, hounded by his elder brother had fled to the same forest. Then follow a series of misunderstandings.

It is about the heartlessness of urban life pitted against the generosity of nature. Jealousies of human nature, its malice and treachery are pitted against love, enchantment, tenderness and compassion.

I know not how to praise the combination of Bindia Ghosh and Anirban Ghosh for their superb acting. The combination of Ipsita and another Anirban is excellent. Another combination comprised with Kamal Chatterjee and Tanima Biswas is also very much entertaining. Shyamal Chakraborty is another actor who played a very sensitive character so nicely. Another talent found in this play is music-director cum the main singer of rare quality Shubhadip Guha. We have to mention startling design of the stage craft done by Bikash Biswas. And last but not the least the directors of the play – Supriya-Kamal-Sohini`s unique combination.

To conclude I would have been very happy if I could have placed Hridmajhare and Chaitali Rater Swapno as the best contemporary Kolkata`s Shakespeare productions. But the question of grammatical paradigm refrains me to do so. But I`m sure that team Chaitali Rater Swapno, team Hridmajhare and team Romi and Juli  have a long way to go and has their own worlds to conquer.

More Photos

A Scene from Bengali play Romi O Juli
A Scene from Bengali play Romi O Juli Directed by Biplab Bandyopadhyay

Pachu Ray

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