LOOK AT PLAYWRIGHTS from Kalidasa and Shakespeare to Girish Karnad and Wole Soyinka. Note the stylistic range represented by Nobel laureates George Bernard Shaw, Dario Fo, Jacinto Benavente, Luigi Pirandello, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett. Take today’s hits—Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 or Samuel J Friedman’s Ink. Indubitably, playwrights then and now have created some of the most passionate, sophisticated works of literature. But do we ever read those pages unless we are compelled to do so in the classroom?
I guess reading a play demands a different approach. You are stranded amidst dialogues, without authorial voice to describe and explain. You are challenged to flesh out the speakers by their vocabulary, speech rhythms, what they say and what they don’t say, sifting through lies, contradictions, dilemmas, disillusionments. All the while, you are mindful of stage directions, which may include soundscapes. In other words, you cannot merely read the text, you need to direct it as enactment on the mindscreen. Once you struggle through this process, you know why the director is king, though the script belongs to the playwright, and the stage is owned by the actor.
This summer I watched two modern classics in London. Their casting was superb, but it was the crafted directorial vision that restored freshness to familiar texts.
Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s full-length play, rounded off Pinter at the Pinter season, a series of less-known works in the playwright’s oeuvre, in the theatre named after him.
His Nobel citation acknowledges that the new-minted word Pinteresque signifies the ambience where ‘drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution… characterised as ‘comedy of menace,’ a genre where the writer allows us to eavesdrop on the play of domination and submission hidden in the most mundane of conversations… (cognizing) the volatility and elusiveness of the past.’ In Betrayal, we eavesdrop on twosome and threesome conversations between literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox) , art gallery curator Emma (Zawe Ashton), and her book publisher husband Robert (Tom Hiddleston).
The play opens with ex-lovers Emma and Jerry meeting in a pub to catch up on their now separate lives. Emma is getting divorced, she had just confessed to her unfaithful husband her own seven-years liaison with Jerry, Robert’s best friend. Pinter deploys a brutal time-reversal technique to expose the web of lies, the miasma of deceit, “to smash the mirror to find truth on the other side”. Nine scenes rewind in successive stages (1977 to 1968), climaxing on the first damning moment, in retelling the playwright’s own seven-year extra-marital relationship with TV presenter Joan Bakewell. (Bakewell too had her say when she turned 84, with her play Keeping in Touch.) Perhaps this autobiographical leitmotif makes Betrayal appear more straightforward, with fewer arabesque motivations.
However, director Jamie Lloyd steps in with inventive devices to uncover less perceived strands. Firstly, he has all three characters on the stage all the time—ensuring that even when a scene involves only two persons, the silent third looms in the background, inextricable from the others’ minds. None can escape the triangular, no-exit snare, imaged by spare props and bare walls, bathed in bluesy or jaundiced lights. Secondly, the director orchestrates a parallel play of their shadows. This ancient technique comes with primeval power, neither supplementary nor complementary, but minatory, spinning an alternative narrative of suppressed truths. As a theatre person myself, I note a shift in perspective: in Pinter characters lie. With Lloyd characters lie to themselves.
In Betrayal director Jamie Lloyd steps in with inventive devices to uncover less perceived strands. All three characters are on stage all the time
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In this clinical setting, actors are directed to shape the play with their bodies and minds, relentlessly pushing Pinter’s silences and pauses to release uncanny resonances. The glance—surreptitious, stolen, sidelong, veiled, vacant—becomes a weapon. Gestures evolve a meta language: Emma reveals her mixed feelings in intimate ways of caressing her cuckolded husband; in the restaurant Robert stabs at his food with knife and fork, a ferocious contrast to his light banter with Jerry.
The director comes out on top when a child (not in the script) materialises out of nowhere. Seated with this daughter on his lap in a chair orbiting the centre- staged lovers, Robert pierces the void with his unflinching gaze. While Pinter concludes with the husband’s exit, leaving the lovers on the stage, Lloyd has the trio holding hands, inextricably linked to each other in pulsating perfidy.
Bakewell found the title accusatory. Lloyd might have seen it as catharsis, even expiation. After all, Pinter makes us empathise most with cuckolded Robert, not with Jerry, his alter ego. And I wonder what Pinter would have thought of celebrity star Tom Hiddleston (best known for Thor and The Avenger series) casting a melancholic mystique on Robert. Discovering Jerry’s telltale letter to Emma, it is with cadenced Hamletian ambiguity that Robert tells Emma of how, as editors of poetry magazines in Oxford and Cambridge, he and Jerry wrote long letters to each other about Ford Madox Ford and Yeats. “We were bright young men. And close friends… To be honest I’ve always liked him rather more than I liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.” The implications lance you. When Robert’s eyes shine with tears, theatre smash cuts life.
And yet the alienating factor remains: the characters belong to the super elite strata, breathing class, wealth, entitlement, a clubby nonchalance. The production itself is so austere, so severe, so minimalist, that despite some wrenching sequences, it engages mind more than heart. And yes, you can see the cerebral tilt as its strength.
It cannot be denied that empathy rises more spontaneously in encountering elemental problems in less privileged, lower-class communities, as in the other play: The Death of a Salesman. Not that we dismiss the intellect. We analyse Arthur Miller as he questions the rot in the state, blames society for moral debilitations in individual and community. When families disintegrate, values splinter, characters crumble, we ask: is Miller’s salesman Willy Loman a tragic hero or a stone cold loser? Sure, he has hamartia, tragic flaw, but what about anagnorisis, understanding the world and the self-in-the-world?
Miller’s work indicates that playwrighting—from ancient/ medieval to post-post modern— continues to be rooted in the morality play model. His misfits long for a miracle to save them. You cannot say whether they are naturally delusional, or refuse to distinguish between desire and wish fulfillment. However, Willy Loman asks the same questions which have eternally plagued humankind. Does life have any meaning? How to make the right choice? Tackle illusion and reality?
While families disintegrate, values splinter, characters crumble, we ask: Is Arthur Miller’s salesman willy Loman a tragic hero or a stone cold loser
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The story is simple. Willy Loman brags to his family about being a “well-liked” super-salesman—encouraging firstborn Biff to see himself as a sports star bound to succeed. Financial loss, diminishing sales, customers’ scorn, failing sons, even his once tree-surrounded house now shrouded by high-rise apartments, all combine to defeat him. Stumbling as he drives, babbling to himself, bursting into tirades, hallucinating about seeking advice from brother Ben who made his fortune in the diamond mines, Loman is unable to separate past from present. A laughing stock to all but loving wife Linda, he is overwhelmed by guilt about cheating on her. He knows it has destroyed Biff. Losing his job, his way out is suicide.
The Death of a Salesman has been acclaimed as a world classic for its universality. However, when the play premiered in 1949, the impact of the nationwide financial and psychological disasters wrought by the Great Depression (1929) and World War (1939-45) emerged forcefully. Miller’s comments are telling: “I knew that the Depression was only incidentally a matter of money. Rather it was a moral catastrophe, a violent revelation of the hypocrisies beyond the façade of American society… Nothing is as visionary and as binding as moral indignation.”
Miller plays with the tricks of time and memory just as Pinter does in Betrayal. Similarly, an experience from life bases Willy Loman on uncle ‘Manny’ who constantly and unfavourably compared nephew Arthur with son Buddy. Years later, after watching All My Sons, instead of congratulating the playwright, Manny bursts out, “Buddy’s doing very well.”
This production at the Young Vic gets to be directed by two women: Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. Though, as usual with Miller, here too women characters get less space. Linda alone has a sizeable role among the five women (with nine men) in this play, as an ancillary figure, a traditional homemaker. She ignores her husband’s snubs, plays no part in shaping her sons’ personalities, and reproves them when they show disrespect to their father. As the strong, loyal, elegant Linda, Sharon D Clarke gives Wendell Pierce of Wire fame (who straddles the play as Willy Loman), a run for his money. With quiet magnificence she personifies moral outrage in denouncing the system that exploits and discards Loman: “I don’t say he is a great man… But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.” And it is Clarke who has the final say, in a hymn she sings with a dignity so powerful, so poignant, that it reaches a space beyond tears. Indeed the spell of live music of many genres by Black musicians on and off the stage, bound viewers into Willy’s community.
But you ask: why a Black Willy Loman and family? An attention-drawing device? True, the casting changes the dynamics in Loman’s craving for popularity and respect, his failure despite a lifetime of hard work, even his liaison with a Caucasian woman. But that is not enough. Biff and Happy may stereotypically score in games and music but academic excellence is reserved for the White neighbour. Disappointingly, the directors do not explore racism with significant contemporary relevance. Their only spine-chilling visual is of the White boss recoiling from Loman’s frantic Black touch.
However, what Kwame Kwei-Armah (Artistic Director, Young Vic) says may have a staggering significance in our age of immigrants: “The idea of casting an African-American Loman family would not have interested me if this was to be merely a ‘black version of’… What excited me… was the specificity of this particular family at this particular time, surrounded by aliens, and how that alienation carries through into the next generation… that wrestle with assimilation, what the costs are—on your mental health, on your family’s health and that of your community, and then on society.”
Rereading a play after watching the performance is to enter a treasure house of harmonies—you hear the original score, the director’s improvisations, the actors’ elaborations. Your mind is charged by multiple currents to soar beyond your own trajectory. No wonder India sees theatre as total art, and theatre experienced as epiphany.
However, most of us can access a play only on the page. Voila! You switch on the first person active voice, an urgent now. Can any other genre give you as much freedom to create your own universe?