Kolkata saw two solo shows in English on the work of famous authors, both underscoring the need for variety in performance to engage spectators of this genre. Kathleen Mulligan, an American professor of theatre in India on a Fulbright grant, enacted William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst about Emily Dickinson, coordinated by the United States—India Educational Foundation. Luce specialized in composing one-person plays, of which this, his first, attained the most success. However, biographical research on Dickinson over the last 40 years has rendered his conventional cloistered view of her as somewhat old-fashioned.
While Mulligan represents that characterization accurately and thereby presents the peculiar conditions that sequestered articulate women in the 19th century, from the perspective of theatricality her director Norm Johnson should have encouraged her to diversify the fifteen other people in the script, differentiate her portrait of Dickinson according to age from her teens to her fifties, and distinguish her verse from her dialogue in day-to-day prose with a delivery more appropriate to the register of poetry whenever she slides into quoting Dickinson’s own lines.
Simply Shakespeare, scripted and directed by Renu Roy, features Keshav Roy introducing the Bard and elocuting many speeches from his plays and one sonnet. The structure does not follow chronology (which is not a problem) and contains several familiar soliloquies (a problem, because the audience’s knowledge of them makes Keshav’s one-dimensional interpretations fall short). The uncommon inclusion of Sir Thomas More merits praise, but the complete absence of speeches by women surprises, given that accomplished boy actors used to perform them.
Keshav’s stentorian voice and impeccable pronunciation remain more or less the same throughout, regardless of the character, resulting in avoidable monotony. He should vary his accent for outsiders like Shylock and Othello. Since he uses a remote mike, he has no reason to rant and rave at a uniformly high pitch; on the contrary, he should capitalize on it to lower his tone and explore subtlety where the words demand. He also races through the lines, often making them incomprehensible, blasted further by the sound operator who hoists him with his own petard of background accompaniment.