Tents that seem crafted from satin and glow crimson in the night are the first hint that the cricket and football grounds beside a busy road have turned into an enchanted land. There are no people around who look like they live here, though. The tents are empty and silent — hollow shells that flap in the breeze — but for the one in the middle where curiosity leads clusters of audience members to watch The Tempest. The performance, which premiered at the Serendipity Arts Festival at the SAG Grounds in Goa on December 20, is significant for using the circus, a dying tradition, to adapt one of William Shakespeare’s most complex works.
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The venue is a large tent, which, up close, no longer exudes a reddish hue. It is as pale as bloodless skin. Within, there is the gloom of high canvas wall and the criss-crossing beams of light are enough only to find a place on the benches that rise in tiers on three sides of a ring. The regular arrangement of an auditorium is broken for a more rustic experience, where well-heeled audiences must watch their step. This is only the beginning of the hour-and-a-half play in which familiar ideas are contorted like bodies of acrobats. With scenographer Deepan Sivaraman, theatre director Abhilash Pillai attempts to draw out the layers of increasing darkness in the storyline. The performance space is a circus ring over which looms the bust of Sycorax with her arms spread wide and her massive breasts holding up the curtained doorway through which the actors and artistes enter.
Sycorax is also enacted live by actor Sreekanth A Trikaripur, who shows that it is possible to writhe while striding. He carries the weight of the world on his back in the form of a painted dome strapped on like a massive dish antenna. In a fascinating scene, Sycorax gives birth to Caliban, as a fat tube or the umbilical cord inflates and blows up a balloon doll of an infant. Baby Caliban, enacted by Vinu Joseph, begins to crawl and stumble in the company of fantastical denizens — cue circus acts such as juggling, clowning and acrobatics. The confrontation of a bristling Sycorax, the original inhabitant of the island, and a puffed-up Prospero (Ramesh Varma), who begins to rule with a whip and an iron hand, is a powerful moment.
Few words are spoken, but meanings exposed through growls and snarls — of a chained Caliban who refuses to accept Prospero as his master — and nonsense words of the others characters. The audience, of course, has been narrated the story briefly in the beginning and characters frequently use snatches of languages such as English, Hindi, Malayalam, Assamese and Sanskrit. Prospero’s Hindi and English have a thick regional accent. This seems to be Pillai’s way of supporting local accents as well as evidence that communication can transcend barriers of language. The director ignores the script but squeezes out Shakespeare’s essential themes — the meanings of rebellion and servility, freedom and dictatorship, parents and children — and adds a few of his own, such as concerns about subaltern and dispossessed people.
The circus is a metaphor for land that is without borders whose artistes are nomads, just as a ringmaster symbolises the coloniser Prospero. The play, sponsored by Credit Suisse as a CSR initiative to improve circus traditions in India, highlights the skills of the ring. Watching a knife swallower enact his tricks challenges and stretches the concept of reality, dream and illusion, exactly as Shakespeare had intended. The love between Miranda (Tanya Tiwari), the daughter or Prospero, and Ferdinand (Mukesh Tiwari) is depicted through swirls and stunts on the trapeze. The scene of a shipwreck at the island is a melange of fire swallowing, sharp lighting, acoustics and wild trapeze acts.
Clowning, knife swallowing, rope tricks, fire play and balancing formations are among the other interventions of the circus. Add to that giant and baby puppets and a soundscape that says “Sock them, mock them, thought is free”. The human performers still manage to stand out in the heap of elements, largely because they are united by a singularity of purpose. Only the video projections showing, among others, a boat sailing in the high sea, seem surplus. There is also irony in the show ending with recording of boisterous clapping even before the audience could respond.
On the way out after the performance, it is possible to see the bare tents as filled with amazement and stars in the dark sky.