This month, Theatre Workshop became the sixth among the Bengali group theatre movement to reach the magic milestone of a golden jubilee – after Bohurupee, Little Theatre Group/People’s Little Theatre, Sundaram, Shouvanik and Nandikar respectively. So many others have perished along the way; these persevered, through collective organizational ability or sheer doggedness, and perhaps a combination of both. When Ashok Mukhopadhyay, Bibhash Chakraborty and Maya Ghosh left Nandikar to form Theatre Workshop with others in 1966, they surely could not have imagined that the group would survive 50 years hence. I remember their 25th birthday celebrations; at that time they used to hold eagerly-anticipated annual theatre festivals. Squeezed for funds, they had to stop those, but continued their own work largely through the determination of Mukhopadhyay.

To mark their achievement, they offer a bouquet of three new productions, two of which appropriately deal with the history of their times. I find the solo Kushilab, enacted and directed by Mukhopadhyay, most relevant in this context because Swapnamoy Chakraborty’s story provides a neat encapsulation of Bengal’s political and cultural progress (or lack of it) over the last half-century and more, as well as how they converged and diverged, through the musings of a dramatist reflecting on his life. In a bravura feat of memory and stamina occasionally punctuated by voices on soundtrack, Mukhopadhyay ranges from the protagonist’s arrival as a youth in the city, to his writing career and down to his mercenary scripting for the screen at present, flagged by important political changes (including a recording of a Jyoti Basu speech) and his sometimes inadvertent involvement in them. Unusually, he does not dramatize what amounts to a monologue, but keeps the prose intact as Chakraborty had written it. One only regrets the abrupt end – as if Chakraborty did not want to comment much on the current situation.

The full-fledged production Bāish Gajer Jiban presents another good play from the pen of Sumitro Banerjee, who always puts deep thought and research into his works, which consequently consume more time in the making, unlike many popular and in-demand Bengali authors whose prolific output compromises their standards. Let us hope that he finds more leisure to produce the quality scripts that group theatre needs more of. He also has a proven penchant for historical material, which fitted in with the occasion. Still, the subject was a surprise: complementing Kushilab, this play scrutinizes the evolution of cricket in Kolkata over the last few decades.

Replete with references to actual games and records of Maidan clubs and at the Eden Gardens (not forgetting Dada), it in fact narrates how the sport has transformed into a money-spinning activity to the extent that a rich businessman takes over one of the clubs. The generation gap between the previous coach and his talented cricketer son comes to the fore. The former belongs to the old school but never praises his son, who resents this attitude and does not mind attending the parties that the new owner now hosts. Integrity is Banerjee’s theme. He may himself look slightly overage in the part of the son, while some climactic moments seem conventional and heavy-handed, and the finale rather rosy, but under Mukhopadhyay’s direction many fine performances in the supporting roles redeem the show.

Loknath De Indianizes the third production, Target, from a Finnish film, Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) – a relatively unknown, therefore uncommon source for Indian theatre. A company sacks a longtime employee, who turns suicidal as a result, but keeps failing in his attempts to commit suicide. So he pays a professional hit man to murder him. Soon after, however, he falls in love and withdraws the contract, but the assassin insists that he must carry out what he has accepted money to do. De directs this one-act play in an absurdist manner, himself acting utterly disillusioned in the lead as an existentialist Everyman, supported by Daminee Basu as the lowly bar girl who befriends him and becomes the reason for him to live. Thinking ahead, we see in De’s creative style the potential for Mukhopadhyay to hand over the directorial baton as Theatre Workshop prepares for its next generation.

(From The Telegraph, 30 July 2016)