Experimental theatre in the time of Covid-19A recent virtual performance reminds us of the power of theatre and life.
The mantra of theatre is proximity among the characters on the stage and their close contact with the audience. The power of the theatrical performance emanates from this very ancient and immanent practice of keeping drama very close to human experience and performance. The choice of a specified space called theatre and its milieu is, therefore, its most important need. Anything that is removed from this practice tends to disrupt and even destroy the power of the selfsame entity called theatre. One other power of the mantra of theatre is its continuity. Theatre performers have kept the practice of performance alive in very difficult times also. They continued to perform plays even on the ruins of buildings raged by bombings during wars and in violent times. The world of theatre is now debating about the possibilities of keeping the theatre performances going. I keep receiving letters and tracts of information from the International Theatre Institute about the efforts of people devising various ways of keeping theatre alive during the pandemic.
Nepali theatre has made tremendous progress in the twenty-first century especially in terms of drawing the audience, exploring talents that include playwrights, theatre and related artists, and creating theatres. Being part of this renaissance one way or the other, I have seen how the different generations of theatre directors, managers and artists have made tremendous sacrifices to keep this precious form of performance art alive. Many talented youths chose to make theatre their career knowing very well that the state is not ready to help this form of art.
The Covid-19 scourge harmed nascent theatre. The new wave of infections came as a double whammy. The resilience of the theatre artists and directors is appearing with all its strength and the message of an important order. Only the other day, a tremendous surge of theatrical energy was evinced in the virtual performance of a play made at the initiative of the artistic director and manager of Shilpee Theatre, Yubaraj Ghimire aka Ghiyu, in Kathmandu. The Nepali translation of No Exit a play written by the French existentialist playwright and author Jean-Paul Sartre as Anupasthit Teen or the 'absent three' was performed live by three theatre artists separately from their respective homes. This performance was a great theatrical experiment because the separate artists performing from their rooms came on the screen together as if they were performing face to face on the stage. And they did that successfully.
According to the theatre scholar and teacher of performance studies at the Tribhuvan University Central Department of English Dr Shiva Rijal, this show embodies an element of avant-gardism. Explaining this he says though this conditionality may be considered a makeshift arrangement, the inherent spirit of challenging the negative energy represents that idea. He is right because this very spirit is the main success of the experiment. Spelling out the challenge and the nature of the resistant avant-gardism, director Ghimire says in his note 'because of the all-out closures of schools, colleges, business and small trades we too had to close our theatres'. The most tantalising part, Ghimire says (the most painful part for the theatre people, as said earlier) is that ‘we could not touch each other; lovers could not embrace; people had to maintain distance from each other. That raised a question—is that life? To seek an answer to that we decided to perform this play written by Jean-Paul Sartre in which individuals are trapped and condemned with the fate of not touching each other.’
The artists performed from a state of lockdown. The three characters are Abhilasha (Pabitra Khadka), Azad (Salil Subedi) and Ichha (Usha Rajak). The brief role of the valet is played by Manahang Laoti. The people normally called 'off stage' though everybody was off stage, were the musicians and of course the translator Awatar Pathak. This play was performed for one time and was streaming live on YouTube; it will be viewed by many theatre lovers and others who are desperately looking for an apt metaphor to express what Sartre himself calls the ennui or the tedium created by the pandemic.
One important feature of this performance was the rendezvous of the theatre artists who have long and diverse experiences of acting and working with different directors and theatres. Pabitra Khadka is totally dedicated to theatre. She has mostly played important roles in different plays, too many to mention here. She has played roles in my own plays also. And she has been working mostly under the tutelage of Ghimire. Salil Subedi started his career of acting with the German director Sabine Lehmann of Studio 7 and has played leading roles in six plays in her Brechtian theatre. He played under other directors like Sunil Pokharel and Bimal Subedi. Usha Rajak is a versatile artist who has played on stage and in films as we can see how her work in ‘rhythm and soul with Usha Rajak’ got disrupted due to Covid-19.
A detailed discussion about the theme of damnation and the human longing to resist the blow of finality is not possible here. But what must be mentioned here is the intelligent evocation of the existentialist mode of experiment in theatre by Yubaraj Ghimire. In the plays written by Sartre during the very harsh years of the Second World War, the lines separating life from death are very tenuous. Sartre has depicted that mood, to my mind, more brilliantly in his series of novels entitled The Road to Freedom. But he has dramatised the same mood more intensely in his plays; No Exit is one of them. This shows how the human experience has a certain character of repetition.
Lastly, I want to recall one of my own early experiences of acting in a Nepali play with a theme of damnation. Bijaya Malla's play entitled Pattharko Katha or the story of boulders has such theme of resistance in the afterlife state of existence—against the nature of the damnation. I played the main role of Raghubir in that play in 1968 as a graduate student in English at Kirtipur. Giving the medal for best acting, judge Balakrishna Sama had said ‘the death that you all played here is the drama of life.’ Resistance of the punished is always a valid and warranted theme. Today writing these words about Sartre's characters on Nepali stage I would like to reassert my conviction about the power of life.