Macbeth Mirror – Contemporary in performance, not so in drama

Posted by Kaahon Desk On July 7, 2018

Kalyani Kalamandalam’s offering, Macbeth Mirror is a production that, though reasonably loyal to Shakespeare’s Macbeth in content, is quite novel in terms of performance. The Bengali drama written by Dattatreyo Dutta follows Shakespeare’s plot and themes but introduces some innovations that draw attention. The most important innovation is that three actors perform the roles of multiple characters. One can hazard the guess that the performance design of three actors playing multiple roles was pre-determined, with the text then being built around this design. And this gives rise to some crucial questions about Macbeth Mirror.

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With passage of time, theatre has come to a point when performance is striving to overtake written text; in many cases, performance is completely doing away with written text to engender a sovereign performance-text. In this context, when we see Macbeth Mirrorprioritizing performance, we understand that it is trying to align itself to its performative times. But the problem here is that the production comes across as internally conflicted – on one hand performance seems to dominate, and on the other, the text remains substantially present. If narrating the story of Macbeth has to happen, why should it be narrativized with just three actors? One finds no logical explanation, that arises out of the text (be it Shakespeare’s or Dattatreyo’s), for this radical reduction of the number of actors. Where the written text is preeminently present, having three actors perform a host of characters without any textual motivation, gives to the performance an aspect of exhibitionism; the play almost becomes an excuse to put on display performance skill. As Macbeth Mirror unfolds, one begins to wish for a more pronounced detachment of performance from text, in which case the question as to ‘why just three actors’ would not have risen at all.

The play begins with the three witches, who are fervent Kali devotees and who invoke evil through the chanting of various tantric incantations. We begin to hope that what will follow is a new post-colonial Indianization of Macbeth. But, even here the drama remains conflicted – the witches become Kali followers but Macbeth, his Queen, Banquo and the others remain distant foreign characters. Even as the rationale behind this does not become clear, another lack disappoints. We all know that Macbeth (or Hamlet or King Lear) is thematically timeless; but why a Macbeth of the present will not address its times and why it will not be as a mirror held against the immediate present is difficult to understand. The performance mode might be contemporary, but the drama does not encapsulate the contemporary.

That Macbeth Mirror still emerges as a satisfying audiovisual experience despite all the questions surrounding it has to be attributed to the performance design and the performance. Director Santanu Das is a National School of Drama alumnus. In Macbeth Mirror, Santanu has ably carried forward the task that NSD does, which is to construct a pan-Indian theatrical form by fusing various indigenous and international modes and styles of performance. Thus, in this performance we see the powerful impact of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the most striking example of which is the scene where Lady Macbeth’s near hysterical call to be ‘unsexed’ is performed by the actor wrenching out of her body a blood-smeared sanitary pad and shredding it to pieces. Again, Artaud’s notion of theatre as ritual is practiced through the almost ceremonial arrangement of various props on the stage and through repetitive actions in many scenes. An example of such ritualistic repetition is when complementing the hectic vocal and physical performance of two actors on the right side of the stage, the third actor placed on the left continues to endlessly grind something, with the same silent gesture. The separation that the proscenium inevitably posits between performer and audience, however, becomes an obstacle for Macbeth Mirrorin becoming wholly Artaudian. All movements in Santanu’s performance design are heavily stylized, within which penetrate snatches of Indian martial dance or Japanese kabuki mie poses. A number of scenes combine powerful visual imagery with construction of well-defined meaning – thick ropes that hang against the backdrop swing wildly to visually convey the disorder that besets Macbeth’s universe when forces of evil are unleashed; when the same ropes coil around Macbeth, it is as if we witness Macbeth’s being trapped by the tentacles of destiny. Likewise, when Macbeth plans Banquo’s murder even as he tears a handful of flowers to pieces, the gradual stripping away of all good from Macbeth becomes visible. The light design of the play is such that it foregrounds the signature darkness of Macbeth’s universe; the light projection is quite skillful, as evidenced in the number of times the lights come on or go out or focus sharply on a spot in perfect consonance with the action and the music. Subhadeep Guha’s background score comes across as rather pedestrian, even though the intelligent idea of conveying Macbeth’s intense agony through the strains of esraaj helps the audience to connect to the character’s sentiment. The moment of Lady Macbeth breaking into song to seduce Macbeth towards sin is innovatively striking.

Though there are three actors on stage, and not discounting anybody’s efforts, it has to be said that Ananya Das and Jayeeta Das remain Monalisa Chatterjee’sassociates. One reason for this is, of course, that the text allows the duo much less scope to perform compared to Monalisa. Both Ananya and Jayeeta act their hearts and bodies out, but the stiffness in their frames is visible. A major feature of the play is that it celebrates a form of destructive feminine force, the position in society of which is decidedly marginal and which evokes fear and anxiety. Monalisa has internalized this aspect of the play as a performer and a woman, which is why she has been able to dig deep into the core of her strength to mine out a remarkable performance.  She has tirelessly moved from character to character in voice and body – on one hand, she has proven her enviable vocal range and on the other, she has repeatedly made and unmade her body, causing it to grow big and small, thereby proving her mettle in physical acting. Monalisa has mastered the technique of acting and she is also able to penetrate the ideological center of a text with heart and mind; her performance, thus, does not only have the glitter of craftsmanship, but also throbbing life. It is a sad aspect of our cultural practice that the quality of performance that makes a male performer famous, even if achieved or even surpassed by a female performer will not ensure her eminence. It would not be an exaggeration to recognize Monalisa Chattopadhyay’s performance in Macbeth Mirroras a distinguished milestone in theatrical acting.

Dipankar Sen
A student of theatre as an art practice, he is definitely a slow (but hopefully, steady) learner. He is a father, a husband and a teacher of English literature in the West Bengal Education Service. His other interests include literature in translation and detective fiction.

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