How does a theatre practitioner engage with one of the most pressing topics of the day without minimising the stakes but also without alienating one’s audience? This was the question that Deepika Arwind’s mind circled around as she worked on No Rest in the Kingdom, a devised physical theatre performance that took on the fraught subject of everyday misogyny. “People have different reactions to gender-based work. Some believe that such work is not for them, others are put off by a certain preachy tone that might creep in, and some feel like the topics addressed have no relation to their actual lives,” says Arwind, “The problem before me was how to create a work that didn’t generate any of these reactions, but which still made the issues clear.”
The solution that the Bengaluru-based theatre practitioner and playwright eventually hit upon was one of the oldest and most effective in any art — to say it with humour. “Theatre, but with elements of stand-up” is how Arwind describes it. She plays four characters in the comedy — a ‘good guy’ with a questionable perspective; a young woman who seems to be in denial about disturbing aspects of her personal life; an elderly professor whose behaviour seems increasingly unhinged; and a cat rapping about women. “The characters come from a milieu we are familiar with, an urban, English-speaking, consumerist background. In a sense they are based on stereotypes and are familiar to the audience, but they come with their own quirks,” she says. No Rest in the Kingdom opened in late December 2016 in Bengaluru and has since then completed 30 shows around the country and outside, including at the Old World Theatre Festival in Delhi, Remembering Veenapani Festival in Puducherry and Women of the World Festival in Colombo. Along the way, it has picked up praise for its sharp observations on sexism, delivered with a hefty dose of humour. It opens in Mumbai for the first time on April 13.
The 31-year-old’s previous works have also in one way or another, grappled with questions of identity. In A Brief History of Your Hair she unpacked notions of gendered beauty, while in The Playwright is Dead, for which she was nominated for the Hindu Playwright Award 2017, Arwind essayed a playwright struggling to come to terms with the lack of real women characters in theatre.
It is also, for Arwind, a question of how craft can meet sensibility and is her way of figuring out how important issues can be addressed. “The reason I do theatre is that it’s an experience of many senses. Theatre performances don’t just connect with the audience on a cerebral level, but also generate empathy, emotional and physical,” says Arwind. No Rest in the Kingdom, she believes, allows her to reach out to old men who are set in their ways and young women who are stumbling their way towards an understanding of feminism. “This clarity developed over time. After a year of performing it, I can say with some confidence that while people laugh at the jokes, they also understand what I’m saying about everyday misogyny,” she says.