“The Other Side of History”: Theatre Review

I thought it was difficult to write a review of a play I liked very much; I did not want to sound as if the theatre group had sponsored my review!

But alas, the difficulty of that task is nothing compared to that of writing a review for a play that left me completely cold. Whatever the impression the play has on a member of the audience….the fact remains that a lot of effort and time has been invested in the production. For this reason alone I would like to find some positives in any play that I watch, and write about.

I went to watch “The Other Side of History”, an English translation, by Dr Soumitra Chakravarty, of the Bengali play by the noted Beplaywright, Badal Sicar’s creation, “Baki Itihas”. The description on the Ranga Shankara said that it was a tribute to Badal Sircar (died 13 May 2011): 

“Baki Itihas, Badal Sircar’s ruthless interrogation of the Sixties, of the dreary middle-class obsessions with owning a home, making a career and getting promotions, combined with the numbing apathy towards monstrously transformational global events – both historical and contemporary – find a surprising resonance in our own times. Written in 1965, echoing the Angry Young voices of Europe which were disgusted with war and the impersonal and mindless violence it brings, The Other Side of History was a call to conscience.

“In the light of the thwarted Arab spring, our own frustration with callous and corrupt governance and a terrifying globalisation, The Other Side of History addresses the Indian middle-class that struggles with the same old obsessions, inane and bored, scared to read the writing on the wall.”

With this in mind, and having watched a wonderful production by Centre for Film and Drama just two days previously, I did go with a lot of anticipation. 

The stage set as we entered also looked very promising; some furniture, a laptop, and a window to the rear of the stage which depicted a middle-class kitchen, replete with sink, gas cylinder, a window with a view of the road.

However, the disappointment was sore. Watching Sharat and Vaasanti discuss their respective writing assignments, with their friend Vasudev coming and demanding tea and complaining about his home situation…did not get me engrossed, but I waited patiently as the topic of the suicide of Seetanath, one of the professors in Sharat’s college, is chosen as a topic for Vasanti to write about. The story then comes to life on the stage. In her version, Seetanath’s wife Kona is the youngest of three sisters. Her mother and her sister have died, and the father is presumed dead in a hospital fire. Kona bemoans the fact that her sister has gone “that way” and it would not have happened if her father had been alive; all that keeps her going is that they have a site of land in their name, where one day she will live in her own house. On learning, when a court summons arrives, that Seetanath has mortgaged the land, and also spent all the money in the bank, she feels cheated and decides to leave him for his rich and admiring friend Nikhil. The irony is that her father is alive, and has been milking Seetanath for money through the years to keep his existence a secret, and Seetanath has come to the edge of bankruptcy to protect his wife from the grim reality.

Meanwhile, Sharat decides that Seetanath’s suicide must have stemmed from some abnormality, and Vaasanti makes him set down his version, in which Seetanath reacts very violently to a student, Ashok, reading Nabokov’s “Lolita” in the class and wants to rusticate him, in spite of the pleadings of the secretary of the school. Upon his friend’s prodding, Kona comes out with the story of the death of a young girl, Parvati, in Chambalgarh, many years ago, when they had gone there on vacation. 

The only person who made any impression at all on me throughout this first half of the play was the second Seetanath, who played a mentally-disturbed and violent person convincingly. 

But apart from this….I could connect to nothing at all in the play…not the storyline, the stilted acting, the Bengali costumes, the unconvincing make up (especially of the very young-looking secretary with powdered hair who talked in an equally young voice about his grandchildren). The dialogue was often fumbled, and often delivered in a self-conscious, melodramatic style that completely failed to engage my attention or emotion. There was no sense of identifying with the play or the action; it was a stage, and it was a set piece, being enacted. The sense of disconnect was so strong that I got up and walked away during the interval…something that I have done only once before, in several years of watching all sorts of plays with an open mind.

As I say, a lot of effort goes into the production of a play, and it is sad, indeed, when it fails to produce any effect on a member of the audience. I found myself with absolutely no curiosity about how the play would develop. Neither, when the halfway point was reached, did I feel that in any way it had kept to the description of it. Halfway through, only the mundane had appeared, and the comparison with the “transformational global events” had not even begun to happen.
I would like, perhaps, to watch a later production of this play by the same group, and compare the performances and the production values. I do hope to find that the play engages my mind and attention much more, the acting and the stagecraft of a better calibre.
A sad disappointment, and one on which I was not willing to waste 110 minutes of stage time. Indeed I am sorry to say this, CFD, but this production did not gel with me. The lack of a brochure about the play only added to this sense of  disenchantment.

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