Like so many troupes, Primetime Theatre Company faced total shutdown of activities during the pandemic years but coped by rehearsing monologues, which allow artists near-social isolation. Director Lillete Dubey found that Shobhaa Dé had actually written suitable vignettes published as Lockdown Liaisons, which handed them readymade solo playlets in English that she could stitch into a full production, giving birth to Vodka & No Tonic, hosted in Kolkata by Sanskriti Sagar.
The five stories selected by Dubey have romantic liaisons in common all right, but half of them could have happened at any other time than the lockdown, therefore losing on maximum topical impact. The only one inseparably linked to the lockdown, “Leaving”, surpasses the rest so much by the potency of the disaster visiting a migrant worker who must leave Mumbai that the others pale in comparison. Significantly, Primetime rewrote this text in Hindi, taking only the seed from their source. Joy Sengupta not only evokes the man’s personal dilemma but through lines like “tāli bhi bajāyā aur thāli bhi”, exposes the government’s measures to rightful ridicule.
The titular soliloquy narrated by Ira Dubey depicts how couples got to know each other best—rather, worst—living together 24×7 without any escape valve, leading to a marital breakdown. And in “Lockdown Funeral” (Lillete herself), the strictures on number of mourners show up, but its real storyline had developed many years before. On the other hand, “A Quest Ends” (Joy) and “A Whiff of Eternity” (Ira) could have occurred anytime, their lockdown settings purely incidental.
Sengupta’s overwhelmingly overpowering performance in “Leaving” (photo) unfairly shades Lillete and Ira, both superb actors in their own right. The distinct contrast between the two characters he portrays contributes to the effect, because Ira’s two roles of young women emerging from breaking or broken relationships look relatively similar. We also feel much greater sympathy for Joy’s labourer—at the diametrically opposite class extreme from Lillete’s high-society lady whose shallow and superior airs brought her troubles on herself.
Covid caused such a cataclysm that Dé’s writing barely scratches the surface of its human tragedy.