Theatre And Its Text

Theatre ­­direction is losing the battle against its age old nemesis, the written text.

While modern theatre uses new media and video just to enhance its visual appeal (in more than most cases), classic theatre is steadfastly anchored to its text. The text becomes the universe whereas it should be the core, the crux of theatre. In the ongoing theatre festival, Bhartendu Natya Utsav, this textual theatre is abundantly present. Apart from one play (O by Sohaila Kapur), all the others were old school classic theatre presentations. These plays took to the text literally and never let go. At times this fascination of theatre directors with the written word became so concrete that obvious directorial injunctions were omitted (or even worse, left out).

Tyagpatra, directed by Rajendra Nath, was about the relationship between the present and the past. It emphasised nostalgia and hindsight. A moving tale of an orphan female forced to live in the societal trappings even though her environment demanded fairness. The only person to even acknowledge her plight was her adolescent nephew. He himself embarked on a predestined journey of education, a salaried job and matrimony, inevitably loosing connection with his aunt. As the boy (now a grown man, a judge) tries to reassemble the pieces of his memory with regards to his aunt, he faces a moral crisis of his own; how can he be a fair judge of others in the present if he wasn’t one of his aunt (whom he so loved) in his past? This interplay between the past and the present screams for representation on stage, but is showed banally with a lot of memory flashbacks and yes, the text. What happened to the production managers, light designers and sound engineers? Are they just paraphernalia now?

A comedy must be rich. It cannot afford to be anything but rich. In all its puns, ironies and absurdity, a comedy has to have meaning. Sab Thaat Pada Reh Jayega by Ranjit Kapoor is a satire on family, society and to some extent, the Indian State. In its mesh of absurdity and over simplified characters, one wishes to find a unifying meaning, which takes the play to a higher level making it come alive in the lives of the audience (or at least that must be the aim). This skewing of reality to make it absurd is somehow incomplete till the absurd connects back to reality (or soars into the fantastic). Again, this is the director’s prerogative. It has to be. There is no one else. To argue that the text is sacrosanct (and hence cannot be altered) is plain naive. This golmaalesque form of comic tradition, where everything culminates in a grand finale of sorts, is just a textual device rather than a theatrical (or cinematic) one. Where are the absurd characters? Whatever happened to the Brechtian minimalism?

A coupling of short stories, admittedly see-sawing with each other, is a great way of representing two sides of the same coin. This was the premise of Waapsi and Ayodhya Babu Sanak Gaye. The former held sympathy for the younger (the son) and the latter demanded respect for the elder (the father). The text and context of both stories was completely different (therefore two different plays I guess) but the common under currents of the love-hate relationship between two generations were obvious. A novel theatrical device of narration (overly criticised by my peers) interspersed with play-acting was used by the director to disassociate from the text. An attempt, no doubt, to enable audiences to relate the two stories together. Commendable. Direction takes centre stage. Or does it? Doesn’t narrative treatment enhance the text even more? Where are the disjointed narratives? What happened to the traditional ‘nat-natni’ form of narration?

Let me be the first one to admit that all this talk of direction guiding the text is easier said than done. Direction in theatre (even in cinema for that matter) is not an easy task. But it is the most important one. The lighting, the sound cues, an actor’s blocking and even a voice over from off-stage is forced through from direction (it should). The text is also important, important for the director to understand, internalize and depict on stage. Text forms the focal point for all direction. But it is not everything.

During the course of the festival, a compeer said that cinema is a director’s medium and theatre actors’. That is not true at all. Ask any practitioner. Director is the sole carrier of the art form. He is the one who understands the text so completely that he desires for the audience to grasp the same meaning. In achieving this feat, a director must objectively create spaces for the form to take over and demand audiences to read the text through this created space. If this does not happen then a text is better off read and there is no need for any further representation (be it on stage, film, canvas or anything). An argument beckons; Isn’t this a utopian form of art? Where is the subjectivity? Yes it is. And yet it is subjective. Simply because there is a desire to achieve this unity (between the director and the audience) and not a certainty. Every person will interpret things differently, creating subjectivity. But it is important and essential to leave spaces for these interpretations. And this is a director’s task, not the text’s.

I read (or heard) somewhere that theatre mein sahityakar zyaada hain, naatakkar kam. So true.

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