Last week I cited the mega-statistics of the Theatre Olympics. Today I discuss the foreign entries that I saw. But before that, some general criticism. First, to point out the very low and unjust proportion of folk performances invited, as if our best theatre happens only in the cities. Next, I found it typical that the National School of Drama transliterated the name in Devanagari as “Olumpics”, without the i-kār, exactly as Hindi speakers mispronounce Olympics. Although it exposes ignorance, it fitted the lumpy manner of mismanagement. The Ministry of Culture spent Rs 50 crore, but could not get media to preview the festival properly, resulting in fewer than 50 spectators watching some of the wonderful productions. What a waste.

Consider the nonverbal Around the World in 80 Boxes by Markeliñe, from a Spanish Basque village. This collective’s devised piece has won international awards for children’s theatre and entertained global audiences for 20 years. With the right outreach to select schools, NSD could have ensured a hall packed with kids reacting enthusiastically, rather than the half-full house of stiff-lipped grownups who barely smiled. The three actors played warehouse workers so bored by the drudgery of moving cartons that they invent games with those boxes to imagine scenarios from Arabia to Japan, albeit somewhat stereotyped ethnically. Their dexterity even turned cloth sheets into figures of a rock ’n’ roller and a tango dancer, quite magical.

In stark contrast, Schaubühne from Berlin (who awed Kolkata in 2015) despairingly questioned whether theatre can do anything to change a violent world that no longer offers them hope. Milo Rau scripted and directed Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun as docudrama based on interviews, featuring an African orphan now naturalized in Belgium and a German actor’s harrowing experiences in a Congolese refugee camp after the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda-Burundi. Ursina Lardi in the latter role carried the show almost single-handed with the force of her words and feelings, to the degree that one felt the screen images and, particularly, the junk strewn onstage as unnecessary – scenography’s cardinal rule being, does the performer engage with it? In this case, she did not, rendering it redundant. Instead, she demonstrated effortlessly how logocentric theatre can grip us. But the dramaturgs must correct two errors: Congo is not the largest African country, and the AK-47 is an assault rifle, not a machine gun (allowing for popular usage, of course).

From horror to humour. CentreStage Productions (Colombo) confirms what I said about the University of Kelaniya last month, that Sri Lankan theatre exhibits a dynamic physical equality of the sexes from which Indian artistes can learn. Jehan Aloysius extracted Pyramus & Thisby out of Midsummer Night’s Dream by retaining only the fairies and mechanicals, downgrading the romantic comedy to farcical fantasy, with a full-scale war between Oberon and Titania over the Indian boy. He directed, designed, choreographed, composed the music and enacted Bottom – an astonishing range of creativity, packaged in traditional forms from what Lankans call the “low-country”. But viewers of Habib Tanvir’s or Tarun Pradhan’s Indianizations of the same play will not regard this one as either novel or strange. Coincidentally, Aloysius had premiered it around the same time as Tim Supple’s successful production. Supple stressed Shakespeare’s poetry and vision of love, Aloysius the fun and energized spectacle, adding an arguably obsessive fascination with bottoms.

(From The Telegraph, 31 March 2018)