A regular theatre-goer in Delhi might easily find herself suffering from an acute case of proscenium fatigue. Sitting straight-backed, facing front and blank-faced, watching Actors with a capital ‘A’ flit back and forth across the stage, cheating outward to let us see them while pretending to be unseen, in a ‘realist’ pantomime—this fulfilment of Brecht’s nightmare is startlingly common, and though not universal, is too seldom interrupted by anything more dynamic.
Let’s not throw the baby out. Plenty of good theatre does happen in the traditional set-up. It’s not all hobby theatre—one-night-only performances of modern American plays bravely put up by working professionals at the end of a month of evening rehearsals. Even so, after a while your neck gets stiff, and you grow tired of feeling disappointed every time you are struck by the private awareness of watching a play, because you’re supposed to pretend you’re not.
If you haven’t experienced live performance except as a voyeur peering silently through a fourth wall, you may not understand the fuss. But you might have discovered what you were missing if you found yourself at one of the seven performances of a recent production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale by Tadpole Repertory and Wide Aisle Productions, two Delhi-based theatre companies that seem thoroughly interested in bending the frame.
This Winter’s Tale is a site-specific production, adapted, envisioned and choreographed to fit the space—the lawns of Zorba the Buddha in Ghitorni—and performed in a promenade through it. Site-specific theatre is not a new thing. Masters of the form, such as the UK-based Punchdrunk, take over whole buildings and turn them into self-contained other-worlds, spaces that inform, even dictate, the form and matter of the performance. Punchdrunk’s three productions of Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More—in London, Boston and New York City—are legendary for their use of space.
What’s fascinating about any good site-specific work is the way the structure of spaces and nature of the movement through them compels an audience to renegotiate their role in the action of the play. Though not as drastic as Punchdrunk in its collapse of audience and player, Tadpole’s Winter’s Tale certainly redraws the normal spatial boundaries of theatre. Barring a soft divide, the audience inhabits the same space as the players, and is quite literally in the world of the play.
Rooting the action in real spaces makes the performance a lived experience. The act of following the story as it moves from place to place transforms the spectator from a passive to a participatory witness. We might just be courtiers and villagers, but because we are in near-constant sight of one another, moving, jostling, unseparated by armrests, we are conscious of engaging in a collective experience.
We are not hoodwinked, hypnotised by an illusion, whisked out of our seats—we feel the damp grass and cold, we hear the crickets and frogs. Even the baraat a few hundred metres away on MG Road cannot entirely eject us from the immanent reality of the performance—the palpable danger of Leontes’ jealousy, Paulina’s curses, wracked with grief, the infectious fun of the fishermen’s feast, and Perdita and Florizel creating the love that will heal the play’s central wound—we are wedded to it all through shared space.
The players, too, are not ignoring us; they are aware of being watched and are looking at us while they tell and live through the story, present both in the action of the play and in the space, with us. This is an exceptionally hard thing to do, and the play’s ensemble cast is terrific at it. The conceit of direct address is familiar to us from folk theatre, the genius of which is in its frontal nature. A story is being told, and the players are quite obviously telling it for you, often to you; entertaining you, responding to your entertained-ness.
An Indian audience is arguably ideal for this form, and vice versa. Using Bollywood as an explanation for anything is an invitation for eye-rolls, but it’s not totally outrageous to suggest that decades of watching films where actors play to the cameras have made us uniquely adept at suspending disbelief. We have an easier time being looked directly in the eye and confessed to, schemed with, beguiled, without becoming too uncomfortable. We can go along with the grandiose, the farcical, the melodramatic, because we have more practice investing emotionally in the not-quite-real. We have a strong stomach for high drama and low comedy. In short, we are perhaps the best audience for Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. Imagine the Globe in the early 1600s, packed with people following the dramatic action faithfully for hours, with the occasional respite of comic interludes that call to mind the Johnny Lever and Kader Khan scenes from 1990s entertainers. Shakespeare was the master of this, if you’ll excuse the expression, paisa vasool entertainment.
The division between tragedy and comedy is particularly stark in The Winter’s Tale. The first half, set in the Sicilian court, pivots around King Leontes’ paranoia about being cuckolded, and the resulting destruction of his court and family. The second half, occurring 16 years later in the world of the play and set among commoners living in Bohemia, is a light romance between Leontes’ lost daughter, Perdita, and Florizel, prince of Bohemia. The play ends with Perdita’s restoration to her home, her father reformed and her mother brought to life at her return.
One of the many challenges of The Winter’s Tale is rendering the old-English frivolity and song of the second half enjoyable to a contemporary audience. Much of it is dense with dated references and entendres. These being no longer self-evident, the humour is lost. Tadpole’s production overcomes this possibly fatal hiccup beautifully, thanks to co-director Anirudh Nair’s stroke of genius—to translate the Bohemia bits into lyrical ‘Hindustani’.
Tanzil Rahman’s translation not only saves this part of the play from fluffy banality, it brilliantly enhances the play’s central duality. Director Neel Chaudhuri admits to some initial hesitation about it, explaining that the coincidence of high-low (or court-country) with English-Hindustani was not intended to reinforce a class divide.
But the linguistic duality is effective precisely because it resonates with the cultural context in which the play is performed. The poetry and playfulness of Rahman’s language disturb the high-low equation; the translation channels the bawdiness, but does not reproduce the lowliness of Shakespeare’s dumbed-down second half prose. The result is utter delight for the bilingual spectator. Chaudhuri points out that Delhi is the only city where this play would have a ready audience. The first half of the play is, as Chaudhuri puts it, Shakespeare at his best, and is staged brilliantly, in the round. Too many productions of Shakespeare suffer from insufficient comprehension by actors—words not fully filled out with meaning, phrases arythmically broken up.
A production this complete and wholly well wrought is a rare thing. Everything works together—the music opens up the setting, the movement brings the text to life, the play’s duality informs the staging, the promenade transforms the experience of watching into an active thing, so that you end up not simply having watched, but having been through a story. Tadpole hopes to be able to restage the play in November, if funding is forthcoming. Let’s hope it is. In the meantime, back to the proscenium we go.