A definite positive takeaway from Natadha’s staging of Athhoi at the Academy of Fine Arts has to be the age demography of the capacity audience that had turned up for the show – it was composed mainly of young college/university goers and people on the right side of forty, with grey hairs reduced to a statistical minority. In times when the young are being brought up on a relentless diet of screened entertainment, both real and virtual, it is vitally important for the survival of theatre to be able to draw in young audiences to watch, enjoy and begin to engage with the culture of live performance. Going by numbers, there is no reason not to declare Athhoi successful – healthy box-office returns has to count as a major marker of the success of a play, in the Bengali language, in Kolkata, in 2016, especially when the struggle to remain financially viable is the direst of daily challenges for theatre people.
However, as is often the case with box-office successes, the very reasons for the success of Athhoi (adapted, directed by Arna Mukhopadhyay) are also the causes that render it seriously flawed as a work of art. The central problem has to lie with Mukhopadhyay’s adaptive strategy which, I believe, has at least two major areas of concern. First, trying to force Othello to become a play exclusively about caste politics is attempting the unnecessary, if not the impossible. Shakespeare’s text inextricably intertwines the twin strands of racial politics and sexual jealousy without marking out either thematic strain as being the essential, privileged focus. In fact, in the poignantly complex final speech by Othello, the political is fused with the personal (and vice versa) when he seems to accept a racial rationale for his inordinate jealousy. Does Athhoi (Arna Mukhopadhyay) strangle Diyamona (Turna Das) because he is a Lodha? Does Anagrya’s (Anirban Bhattacharya) manipulations succeed because Athhoi is a Lodha? There is in the play a complete refusal to engage with these questions. In the current socio-political context of the site of consumption of texts, it is fashionable to tick boxes of political correctness in order to accrue an immediate reception (think Pink), but trying to do so will often lead to damaging the text in question (think Pink again).
Secondly, the adaptation (referred to as spatializing) is fundamentally gimmick-ridden. The hefty dependence on Hindi film song/dance routines as an idiomatic staple has earned the play enthusiastic clapping, making it hip and happening, without adding much substance to the text. I will cite two more examples of gimmicky add-ons that remain pretty performance moments without blending meaningfully into the text. At one point, Anagrya breaks into a snatch of a Baul song (bits of songs, mostly popular Hindi film numbers and intended to act as musical annotations to the unfolding play-text, are peppered throughout the course of the play) and then, quite inexplicably, performs a ‘rock-version’ of it. These moments are designed as Brechtian breaks, but are in fact interventions to throw delicious crumbs at the audience, who, as if on cue, lap it all up. Towards the beginning and up to roughly the middle of the play, Anagrya frequently uses the register of cricket and then, just drops it towards the end. This fizzling out, quite like a match being abandoned or a catch being dropped (to continue to speak cricket), is as pointless as its insertion in the first place. There is something deeply troubling (and come to think of it, rather condescending) about an aesthetic approach that remains fixed in its assumption that local palates are satisfied only if dramatic texts are spiced up with masala in the form of sprinklings of Hindi film and cricket. That there is nothing inherently problematic with the idea of vitally integrating songs and dances in Shakespearean adaptations within the Indian context has long been proven, to give just two of many possible examples, by the exceptionally well-executed Kathakali Othello (directed, performed by Sadanam Balakrishnan) and the national award winning film Kaliyattam (directed by Jayaraaj).
Arna Mukhopadhyay, Turna Das, Upabela Pal, Arpan Ghoshal and most of the other actors turn in competent, affective portrayals of their respective characters. Movement choreography, set and light design are well-handled; music, quite carefully designed, plays an important part in setting the atmosphere. The prime attraction of the play is, however, Anirban Bhattacharya’s interpretation of the Iago figure, Anagrya Chatterjee. That he is an actor who has learnt his craft exceedingly well is already established; as Anagrya, he has the script and his director backing him to showcase the entire range of his skills as an actor and he does not hold himself back. Referencing Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Joker, Bhattacharya uses his scintillating presence, his infectious energy and an audacious confidence in his histrionic ability to not just connect with his audience, but have them eat out his hand. Sometimes, he overdoes himself and becomes larger than the text, but that is not what most bothered me about his performance. As a performer he has to introspect as to whether he will have the audience cheer wildly for his Iago/Anagrya or be stilled into a terrified silence, an icy chill running down their spines, recoiling at the uninhibited display of wily, treacherous pure evil. In short, he has to choose between showmanship and performance; he has all that is needed to be very good at both.
It took more than 200 years after the inaugural staging of the play for Ira Aldridge to become the first black actor to play Othello; he had to overcome intense racial prejudice with critics balking at the idea of a black man ‘pawing’ a white woman on stage. Another century later, the legendary black singer, lawyer, activist Paul Robeson essayed this role, in England and in the USA, again battling racist bigotry. (Robeson probably had his revenge by having, as revealed later, affairs with the Desdemonas of both productions, Peggy Ashcroft and Uta Hagen). Since the first Bengali Othello in 1875 (Tarinicharan Pal’s Bhimsingha) this play has been resurrected intermittently in various adaptive avatars on the Kolkata stage. And yet, in 2016, watching a Bengali adaptation of Othello on the Kolkata stage that is declaredly invested in the caste question, we continue to await a Murmu or a Lakhra or a Rabha to appear as the Othello figure. All is fine with the Bengali Kolkata upper caste, middle class iron grip over cultural practices.