The theatre scene in Karachi is picking up. But are people ready to give audience to plays beyond the scope of conventional comedy or musical romance?
This question arose upon the staging of American playwright Edward Albee's dark comedy The Goat or Who is Sylvia at the MAD School this weekend.
Directed by Sunil Shanker, the play would likely make the average theatre-goer fairly uncomfortable with its focus on a man who cheats on his wife with a goat.
Still, Shankar managed to make his small audience think.
There was plenty of pondering and occasional laughter at the absurdity portrayed. By the end of the play, the effect of the underlying horror in the story was palpable as the audience discussed the powerful performances.
The Goat or Who is Sylvia opens with a well-to-do architect Martin Gray (Sunil Shanker) who is living a content life with his wife, Stevie Gray (Joshinder Chaggar ) and their homosexual son, Billy Gray (Kashif Hussain). But when he confides in his best friend Ross Tuttle (Adnan Saeed) that he has fallen in love with a goat named Sylvia, his life begins to devolve.
Stevie leaves him, vowing to ‘’destroy him as he destroyed her’’. Martin keeps repeating that he is ‘’lonely’’ but no one lends an ear to his miserable pleas. The play ends upon Stevie’s return, when she proves that ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. Martin collapses before his son, friend and beloved wife.
While the performances of Sunil, Joshinder and Adnan were spot-on, Kashif appeared to be trying too hard in his role as a homosexual.
Of breaking taboos and spewing profanities
Are people ready for a play like The Goat or Who is Sylvia? Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot was staged at NAPA and was quite well-received, however can the same be said about Albee or Harold Pinter?
The director Sunil is optimistic about putting up absurdist performances before a larger audience but admits that those plays won't be commercial:
"The Karachi theatre scene is quite happening. A lot of young directors are doing non-conventional and experimental work, and there is definitely an audience for them. Perhaps not at a mass level like the commercial plays, but that's fine."
"There are people in Karachi who are craving thought-provoking and challenging material. People were discussing and analysing our play for hours after our first performance, and that's a great feeling. At the end of the day, an artist doesn't think about what the audience wants. You do what you want to explore," he elaborates.
Sunil understands that many people will find the subject matter and profane dialogues offensive, but that doesn't deter him from breaking conventions:
"I have always chosen plays that break conventions. Starting from Equus, then Marat/Sade and the original experimental play Blah & Blah. It is not my intention to offend anyone. Yes, this particular play is not for the faint-hearted. We know our audience will be small, and that is why we are staging it at an intimate theatre, where we can only accommodate 50 people at a time."
Sunil is so eager to stage such works that he is willing to take the production to people's living rooms, similar to a theatre movement called 'Living Room' theatre:
"So if anyone is willing to offer us their living room, we would love to perform it for them and their friends. The inspiration behind this idea came from the lack of performance spaces in Karachi. And we want to continue performing this play, up to perhaps 50 performances. It's ridiculous to put in so much effort and do a play for three nights. So we hope people respond to this idea and reach out to us."
The play was successful at moving the audience. Many gaped in horror nearing the end of the play, and perhaps this is why it hits all the right chords. Sunil is grateful for such a response: "It's an incredibly intense intimate experience, and our audience really seemed to connect with it. Yes, some are shocked, terrified at times, but also ecstatic to witness this kind of work here in Karachi."
Explaining his dual role in the play with respect to direction and acting, he says that it was obviously challenging but he's always up for such situations: "I love challenging myself, and so thought why not, I should just go for it. But yes, it was very difficult. It's almost impossible to turn off your 'director's head' during rehearsals, so you get very little time to focus on your own character."
Relate to Martin, the most complex of the four characters, must have been no easy task, but Sunil was able to empathise with him:
"I had to dig deep through the superficial material, and really get to the heart of what it is that he is trying to say. And his basic philosophy is that anything is possible under certain circumstances. It's part of being human. He's not saying it's right or wrong, just that things can, and do happen. And I can understand this so this was my starting point."
Sunil also feels that this play is closer to the reality than we think: "The play challenges your boundaries. You think you are okay with certain lines, but it crosses over into the unimaginable. Societies in general are filled with hypocrisies and judgments and this play I feel forces you to rethink a lot of stuff."
He hopes to stage the play again soon after Muharram 10.