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Saturday, April 10, 2021

‘I wanted to ride the wave, not make it’: In conversation with Jim Sarbh, Bruce Guthrie on ‘Sea Wall’

Jim Sarbh and NCPA's Bruce Guthrie on their play, Sea Wall, an ode to stoicism.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
March 5, 2021 12:57:50 pm
A still from Sea Wall

In December 2019, actor Jim Sarbh and Bruce Guthrie, Head of Theatre at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), came together for a play titled Sea Wall, which ran to packed houses. Sarbh plays a cheerful and mild-mannered man named Alex, who chats with the audience about his life and his family. The hint of how things shape up is in the title of the play, one of the most powerful scripts by Simon Stephens, which signifies how the ground can suddenly fall away from under your feet.

As the world emerged from the shadow of Covid-19, NCPA is revisiting the show with BookMyShow, bringing a recorded version to the homes of audiences. This is the first attempt by NCPA to film a show.

“We have stripped everything to capture the purity of the play. Rather than make a film, we have captured live performance. Jim’s performance of Sea Wall is continuous and raw. It is one complete take from multiple cameras. We wanted to give the audience a different perspective, so we put the cameras onstage, facing out into the auditorium. This acts as an impressive backdrop to the play without having a set.

“There are times where we light the seats gently at points of the play where we felt it would be useful to take in the enormity of the space to heighten the emotional state of the character. Other than that, there is no special effects or trickery of any kind,” says Guthrie.

A conversation with him and Sarbh:

How is Sea Wall a powerful metaphor for the post-pandemic world?

Guthrie: It’s a stunning piece of writing that is relatable at any time. We tend to find common ground much more readily in tragedy than we do in comedy. That’s not to say the play doesn’t have its moments of light relief. It must have warmth, love, fun and happiness in there or the tragedy of the character will have no impact. For me, the play is an ode to stoicism. Our ability to endure through the most difficult of times and remain hopeful is at the heart of this play. For me, the final beats of the play are utterly hopeful, despite what has gone before.

What was your process of creating this play?

Guthrie: For me, it begins with reading the play fully from start to finish in one sitting. You begin to hear the voice of the character emerge from the text — their rhythms and their idiosyncratic turns of phrase. I begin to see images in my head — key moments from the play. They might not literally be what we see on stage, but these first impressions provide the hooks into the piece.

Many times, my first instincts are the basis on which I build the production with a creative team. I know right away whether I want to direct a play or not. It usually requires me to have an emotional connection with it on that first read.

Also, visualising the end of the play is important for me. If I know where we want to end up, we can work backwards from there to create the most interesting journey to get to that destination. Then I think of the type of actor who could be suited to the role. Having worked with Jim on Constellations, I knew his talents would be suited to this. He has an easy charisma and truthfulness in the way he acts. This part is an opportunity for him to show off a side of himself I haven’t really seen in his work to date. He read the play and instantly loved it.

Sea Wall, Sea Wall Jim Sarbh, Sea Wall Book My Show, Sea Wall streaming, Indian Express Jim Sarbh and Bruce Guthrie

As the performer, how did you enter into the mind of the character?

Sarbh: I had done two shows of the play in 2019. This time, we got to deepen our connection with the text, which is gorgeous. We tried to come up with images for each paragraph so there would be something clear for me to visualise as I went through the piece.

The protagonist Alex is a photographer, so he would have a sharp and clear eye, and definitely seems to think in terms of images. It’s hard to watch your own performance, but the bits I enjoyed the most were when I felt I was actually seeing the images in the text, and then simply describing them.

The text, its punctuation, and its imagery, is so precise and instinctively well written, that merely following the punctuation and seeing the images does all the work for the actor. I wanted to ride the wave, not make the wave. As far as being married for years, and having a child goes, I do not have that immediate experience as Alex. But since the performance in 2019, I have been in a happy committed relationship, and I adopted a cat. So, that helped.

How do you, as the solo actor, capture the essence of a live theatre performance in a recorded show?

Sarbh: My responsibility was to try to give the director the kind of performance he was looking for. We did not edit the text in any way. I did the full monologue four times on the day of filming for four cameras, and the final product is the third run of the day, cut together between the four cameras. I don’t think they used sound effects much — the play is supposed to be in natural light with no sound effects. The script is so good, I wouldn’t want to take out a single sentence. So. unless I fudged it by forgetting a word, the attempt was to be true to the script.

Sea Wall, Sea Wall Jim Sarbh, Sea Wall Book My Show, Sea Wall streaming, Indian Express A still from Sea Wall

Can you tell us a dialogue that helps us connect with Alex?

Sarbh: When Helen’s giving birth to Lucy, the midwife calls to me, ]Daddy, do you want to see your baby born?’ They’ve built a little tent. I look over the edge of the tent and I, you know, I’m one of those people who, I never know where to look when people point things out to me. Like, I’m a kid and I’m driving along and Mum says, ‘Look! A kestrel!’ or, ‘Look! A plane!’ and I don’t have the faintest idea what to look at. I just smile and nod dumbly and say, ‘Oh yeah!’ but I’m completely lying. And this is a bit like that. Mainly I see the yellow of the inside of her stomach, I think your relationship with that person probably then moves to… what, a new level?

The play is on BookMyShow’s web and app platforms on March 6-7. Tickets: Rs 299

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