The title of the play is tantalising. It’s called Cock and it’s not about a domestic fowl. The play is equally bold in dealing with sexuality—a young man with a boyfriend and a girlfriend. It uses a simple set design of a chalk circle within which the principal character goes around sometimes in circles, indicating his confusion. The performance is met with laughter and applause ending in a standing ovation for some superb acting. This is at the prestigious Prithvi Theatre in the year 2013 and the actor-director Manish Gandhi is probably in his mid-20s. In my mid 20s, more than a quarter of a century ago, I directed and acted in a production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, a play about the life and times of a drag performer, probably the first serious gay-themed play to be staged in India. The play received a mixed response with one particular performance marred by an audience member’s vociferous interjections with words like ‘sick!’ I remember having approached a senior actor in Bangalore to sing a Frank Sinatra number, dressed in drag for this play. I will record his remarks for the sake of posterity. He said to me on the phone, “I consider it an insult that you ask me to do this. I will not sully the name of theatre by accepting.” They say that theatre is political. But often, the theatre merely mirrors the politics of our times. What was unacceptable 25 years ago is lauded today.
Theatre needs to adapt to its time and space. Performing spaces are integral to shaping the content. Back then; we were fairly unadventurous with new spaces. One exception that comes to my mind is Ibrahim Alkazi’s famous production of Karnad’s Tughlaq performed at the Red Fort, a perfect setting for this modern classic. Today, in a city like Mumbai with all its challenges groups such as The Company Theatre have performed on rooftops and in living rooms, taking the play to its audience.
Recently, Q Theatre Productions performed their new play on the life of a peasant in El Salvador. The director Quasar says this about his reasons for choosing a play about the displacement of small farmers in a far-off country. “The topics of hunger and food security kept resurfacing in my mind...Often we aren’t aware of ‘goings on’ in other countries, and when events happen in our own, we think they are happening for the first time in history. This is not always the case. ‘Peasant...’ was a reminder of that to me. The issues faced by farmers through ‘commercial cropping’ and institutional subjugation is old stories. We have a lot to learn from history. So while the story is still about a country far removed from us, in a reality quite different, there are still very strong parallels.” The production was done with four actors creating an entire idyllic landscape of human endeavour, suffering and oppression, using split narratives and direct storytelling.
I for one, never cease to marvel at the talent and confidence we have in the theatre today. In the mid 1980s, it was a struggle for me to find actors willing to work in an original play that hadn’t stood the test of a successful run in the West. In my first few attempts of writing original plays, I was faced with the challenge of creating a new audience and weaning the old from broad West End comedies performed with stilted British accents. Today, it seems the norm to perform plays that resonate with the audience’s experiences and expectations of life. Pushing boundaries and creating new centres of awareness puts theatre at its most creative edge in my opinion. Changing times must bring about changes in theatre. Unlike the cinema, theatre thrives on fluidity.