Group: Theatre House (Santiniketan)

Director: Anil Alessandro

Recommended: ★★★★


It pleased me no end to discover the work of the young Anil Alessandro, who spends half the year with his father (Abani Biswas)’s group Theatre House near Santiniketan, and the rest travelling on theatre activities mainly in Europe. Abani trained under Grotowski in Poland, like several Indians since the 1960s, but for the most part stayed away from the arc lights of Kolkata. Alessandro came to the city only last year with one of his productions, of Gorky’s Lower Depths, which I unfortunately missed. This time they brought their much larger project of Hamlet to present at the Academy of Fine Arts.

Theatre House’s process resembles that of many residential companies internationally: artists apply to participate in and audition for their programme, which in this case involved three months of workshops and rehearsals at their site in Khele Danga. Alessandro discussed and analysed Hamlet with them, instructing the actors to write their own parts based on the original text, not translate it. They could also improvise sequences that did not have long speeches. This naturally led to a multilingual script in Bengali, Hindi, English and even Chinese, a fluidity matched by the cast swapping roles interchangeably. Brilliantly exemplifying the first method, Te Hao Boon from Singapore (as Fortinbras) concludes the tragedy in Chinese gleefully, by noting how Norway took over ailing Denmark so easily, his features lending irony to China’s present grasp over the whole world. The best illustration of improvisation emerges in the quickfire repartee between Rosencrantz (Pritam Raj) and Guildenstern (Kulwinder Singh).

Alessandro’s directorial concept is announced at the start by one of the three Hamlets, who peers out from the curtains and tells us that he will stage a play to prove the murder of his father. Consequently, the cast sit to watch from rows of chairs near both wings, rising to join the action when required. The first half projects what’s going on in his mind, while keeping Shakespeare’s basic structure. After the interval, the drama represents the reality instead of his mindscape, but I (for one) could not discern this shift, which therefore needs more thought to communicate it clearly to the audience (for instance, why does the same actor perform the Ghost in the first half and Claudius later, in the same costume? This sets us off on a wild goose chase to connect these characters.)

With their Poor Theatre infrastructure, Alessandro uses only huge polythene sheets drawn as a half-curtain across centrestage, which serve every purpose from the battlements for the Ghost to the arras obscuring Polonius. Farthest upstage, a table functions as, among other things, the platform for the Mousetrap, where Boon (as Player-King) has fun with two dolls in a brief, bawdy poisoning-cum-lechery burlesque. Some episodes look cliched in the contemporary theatre scenario: we have seen far too many umbrellas, though a handheld water hose to sprinkle rain repeatedly in a dreary Elsinore is a nice touch. The fencing, unsurprisingly, comes from Kalari, but one of the swords got bent in combat, anticlimactically. Some of the actors also did not pronounce names correctly. Among the characterizations, Srijita Saha’s Ophelia shows intensity, whereas Gertrude remains undeveloped. Nevertheless, a refreshing interpretation that should visit us more often.