While this practice is common in West End and Broadway, it’s a rarity in Mumbai, especially by an actor of the stature of Shah.
In an unusual new experiment, the veteran actor’s new play The Father will be staged every day for the entire month of September at the NCPA.
Naseeruddin Shah is the rare actor from the Hindi film industry who has dedicated his life to his first love — theatre. Ever since he established his theatre company, Motley Productions, in 1979, along with fellow actors Tom Alter and Benjamin Gilani, he has presented several masterpieces to the Indian audience. This time, however, Shah has taken up a gargantuan challenge, by booking the Experimental Theatre at the NCPA for an entire month and performing daily shows of The Father, French playwright Florian Zeller’s award-winning tragi-comedy-mystery. The production, which will open on 1st September, will be performed every night, followed by similar runs at other venues. While this practice is common in West End and Broadway, it’s a rarity in Mumbai, especially by an actor of the stature of Shah.
Shah has an uphill task on his hands; he is not only directing and acting in the play (which also features heavyweights such as Ratna Pathak Shah, Neeraj Kabi, Trishla Patel and others), but is also trying out a format like this for the first time. Moreover, the story itself is complex and operates on multiple levels, thereby proving to be a challenge for the actors as well as the director. Translated by Christopher Hampton, it is humorous and poignant and takes a searing look at the world through the eyes of a man suffering from dementia. On one level, it is a family drama, and, on the other, a picture of mental dysfunction and the toll it takes on both the sufferer and the carer. Considered as “the most acclaimed new play of the last decade,” it has won several awards and nominations in Paris, London, and New York, including a Tony for actor Frank Langella, who performed it on Broadway.
Shah, on his part, says that staging such a production in a format hitherto never seen before in Mumbai has been his long-cherished dream. “On an average, most companies here perform once or twice a month, if that, and the intervals between shows sometimes extend to weeks. Seldom do more than two successive performances happen at the same venue. While all this is definitely a challenge that prepares us for eventualities and keeps us on our toes, it is a task that certainly detracts us from getting to engage with and elevate the text in the course of performance. Most amateur productions just do not get that kind of time.”
He adds that any play, no matter how long it is rehearsed, really only falls into place after several performances. “As the show progresses, everyone begins to get the ‘feel of the rigging’, as they say in the circus; comfort levels are enhanced; competence increases and the transmitting of the text to the audience actually begins to happen. But all this takes time, whereas in the West, theatre companies have the luxury of previews for audiences, sometimes for several weeks. In India, for most productions, it’s time to close after 20 or so shows, and sadly that’s just when the play begins to catch life.”
Apart from giving Motley Productions a taste of what professional theatre involves, he believes this experiment will allow everyone to really chew upon the play intensely and help the actors arrive at a stage where the words they speak and the parts they play become their own. “The emotional demands this play makes cannot be summoned up by the actors for an occasional show or two. This is not to be confused with the nonsense about actors ‘becoming their parts’ but to just keep them sharply focussed through the period of performance.” Even though the month may prove utterly exhausting for everyone concerned, including perhaps the audience, he admits he is willing to take the risk. “Not because I am confident of packing the theatre every night, but because I am convinced the experiment will reap its rewards to all participants [who will] realise the value of pulling together for an extended time and getting to the shore, so to say. The main challenge is for all of us to survive it physically. The form of the play is somewhat unusual, and we really had to grapple with it to be able to convey the content with clarity. Moreover, it is difficult to find a team of actors or technicians willing to commit for a month’s performance and three months’ rehearsal, when you are only able to pay them a pittance. Yet, it’s an experience that every stage actor should have.”
Photo Courtesy: Amit Sharma