Quite by coincidence, two novels by Howard Fast have made it to the Bengali stage simultaneously, enabling us to rediscover this American author who fell prey to McCarthy’s witchhunting in the 1950s and had to self-publish them after being blacklisted. One, Silas Timberman, on suppression of freedom of speech, was marvellously Indianized by Belghoria Abhimukh as Kojāgari, the must-see of current Bengali theatre. Fast wrote the other, Spartacus, in prison, winning him overnight fame afterwards. Many of us know it from both Kubrick’s classic film and Badal Sircar’s Bengali version.
Now, Purbaranga presents it in a new dramatization by Rokeya Ray and Malay Ray, who stay close to their source, from starting with the sight of Roman slaves crucified along the Appian Way, to narrative flashback about their rebellion in 73-71 BCE. Like Marx and Lenin, Fast projected Spartacus as a hero against tyrannical oppression and, even though Spartacus died, Fast implied that the revolution lived on in his son and all the others in whom he had ignited the spark of freedom until utopia arrives some day.
Rokeya and Malay stick to this vision, including Fast’s fictive departures from fact, most notably the creation of Varinia, Spartacus’ wife and fellow fighter, who survives him, nurtures their son and therefore keeps the fire of revolt burning. Their representation conforms to the conventional image of romantic hero and heroine, battling against all odds together and even clothed more fashionably than the rest of the rebels. Historians also tell us that four other slaves led the uprising alongside Spartacus; we could have seen more of them in the interests of egalitarianism. Arthur Koestler did some of this in his earlier novel on the same history, The Gladiators, which drew a less rosy picture of his “God that failed” because of selfish and internal differences.
Manas Mukherji and Rokeya enact Spartacus and Varinia convincingly as strong, valiant warriors, the latter not shying away from potentially injurious physical action. Malay and Biswanath Dey design arresting visuals without recourse to extravagance: mobile stacked benches surround the gladiatorial contests; several cloth hangings swung over the stage from one wing to another suggest the luxurious settings of the senators. The directors achieve the grisly opening effect of crucifixes simply, by instructing all actors, standing on various levels of the bleachers, to outstretch their arms upon rods and hang their heads down, backlighting them with scarlet to show only their black silhouettes. Above all, the relatively young team gives the production an energetic feel.
(From The Times of India, 31 August 2018)