There is a climactic moment in the play Aagshuddhi, a narrative peak of sorts that throbs with great dramatic energy and towards which the action of the play had always inexorably been moving, when a frenzied Sukhi (Arijita Mukhopadhyay) recants her claim of not being involved in witchery, and in a move that would go on to have grave consequences, implicates her brother, Chhotu Mandi (Krishnendu Adhikary), of practicing devilry. In terms of the plot of the play, this is a moment of crisis, a temporal crucible out of which bubbles over the boiling concoction of the thematic mix of the play – hysteria, paranoia, repressed sexual tension, lust for power and tyrannical control over the lives of people. I noted the collective cringing gasp that the scene drew from the audience in the Minerva Theatre (2nd July, 2016) and recognized again the undeniably powerful and unique affective impact that theatre can and should have on the audience. To the extent that the Spectactors production of Aagshuddhi (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, adapted and directed by Sudipto Chattopadhyay) had at times an almost visceral effect on the watchers, I would consider the play, even with its flaws, eminently successful.
This play is not only an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic, but is also a re-presentation of the Aagshuddhi that was first produced in Kolkata in 1984 by the group Chenamukh under the late Ramaprasad Banik’s direction. The immediate social trigger for the 1984 production was provided by an unfortunate incident of ‘witch’ burning in a village in Purulia and Arthur Miller’s play, based on the late-seventeenth century witch trials in Salem, America, was thus a convenient text for Sudipto Chattopadhyay to adapt as a commentary upon the Purulia atrocity. But, Miller’s play, an allegory of the infamous communist-hunting spree in the USA (the McCarthy trials), remains a searing critique of the manner in which paranoid structures of power crush supposed enemies, constructed ‘others’, dissenters and non-conformists. While the Aagshuddhi of 1984 seems to be delimited to being a Bengali play about witch-hunting adapted from an American play about witch-hunting, the 2016 Aagshuddhi, in the absence of an immediate local context, is free to travel beyond the issue of witch-hunting and align itself intimately with The Crucible’s core thematic preoccupation with the dynamics of the functioning of repressive regimes. In today’s world that is close to saturation with intolerance, statist violence and systematic othering of specific groups of people, Aagshuddhi does provide different resonating frequencies for different stations of reception.
Though I have not watched the previous edition of the play, I can safely surmise that a degree of revisionism marks this particular production, nudging the play in the direction of postdramatic theatre, which is, of course, characterized by replacing the dramatic form of mimesis with a more self-reflexive mode of performance. Though the postdramatic bias, evident in its preference for the stylized non-representational over the imitational, permeates all the design elements of the play (set, lights, costume, music and choreographed movements by Triguna Shankar, Dinesh Poddar, Agnimita Giri Sardar, Mriganabhi Chattopadhyay and Debkumar Pal respectively), it is foregrounded in the presentation of the two judges presiding over the witch trials, Dharmadas Mondal (Soumya Sengupta) and Balaram Mahato (Suman Nandi). Their attires clash with their dialect, they conspicuously flaunt jazzy mobile phones, they occasionally use standard Hindi or even English – all this is to create that sense of rupture between performance and reception which draws attention to the fictive essence of the performed text. However, the rather conservative directorial decision to let all the other characters stick to the conventional mode of acting, rather than preforming, is baffling and disappointing. Sudipto Chattopadhyay has already exhibited a sound grasp of visual dramaturgy that presents an assemblage of image, sound, voice, multiple media, light as opposed to text-dependent acting; his decision to not explore the full potential of visual dramaturgy in Aagshuddhi is somewhat frustrating.
Some fine-tuning is required when it comes to performing in groups on the stage, so that incidences of unwarranted pauses or overlapping dialogues are eliminated. Balaram Mahato being required to perpetually chew on what must be paan and gutka is an irritant. Krishnendu Adhikary has the presence and skills required to project the tortured conscience of the pivotal figure of Chhotu Mandi. Loknath Dey can think of exploring ways of making Majhi Sardar more complex and layered; Sudipto Chattopadhyay as Gunin has room to perform the character’s change of heart in ways other than merely altering the colour scheme of the costume. The disciplined seriousness with which the non-speaking, choric characters approach their craft in Aagshuddhi is heartening. Ipsita Debnath’s Sabitri, with an equal measure of low cunning, sexual frustration and vulnerability, is a treat to watch and listen to. Arijita Mukhopadhyay, Piyal Sengupta (Phulmoni) and Srabasti Ghosh (Rupa, and also Assistant Director) do adequate justice to their roles. Turna Das’s understated Kusum is sheer brilliance, not unexpected from an actor with genuine promise. Rajar Mrityu, the first production by Spectactors, had left me rather disappointed; Aagshuddhi, the second one, encourages me to expect more good things in future from Spectactors.