What can we do? We must live our lives so we will, through the long line of days and long evenings and will bear the trials that fate imposes on us. And then we will die and, after we die, God will have pity on us,” says actor Kalki Koechlin in the opening lines of the play, Sounding Vanya. Mumbai director Rehaan Engineer’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the play was staged as part of Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa and will be shown in Mumbai from December 20-22.
Koechlin, famous for her role in films such as Dev D (2009) and Margarita with a Straw (2014), and web series Made in Heaven (2019), is also a veteran of plays such as The Skeleton Woman (2009) and What’s Done is Done (2015). She took up Sounding Vanya, based on Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, written 120 years ago, because it was a reason to work with Engineer, with whom Koechlin has done One Flea Spare (2018) and Far Away (2016). “In the beginning of Sounding Vanya, when we started rehearsing, Rehaan said, ‘I am not sure this is going to work so bear with me.’ He is full of surprises. This is very important as it allows an actor to step into new territory. Else, we do not learn a new way of acting,” says Koechlin.
Engineer, a director who has trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, is famous for his experimental processes of theatre-making and presentation. He ignores gender by having a woman-only cast in tracksuits and no make-up. These women enact the story of a gout-ridden professor and his glamorous young wife, who come to a country estate, where love, frustration and rivalry tremble under a bucolic and sedentary lifestyle. The actors, Aarti Aney, Abir Abrar, Anna Ador, Ira Dubey, Meher Mistry, Puja Sarup and Koechlin play all the characters, often switching roles and costumes mid conversation while Guy Hershberg accompanies live on the piano, ukulele and cello.
Small gestures — an obsessive tidying of furniture or hands stuck inside pockets — become important in etching the traits of the protagonists. In a critical moment, in Act III, Koechlin draws out the fury of the title character overcome by the futility of life. Gripping a tie, the actor hammers a table repeatedly as the bitterness reaches a crescendo and gives way to a more drastic action. “I always had trouble with this scene. I am not good at channelling anger as I tend to keep it inside me and not bring it out. I, generally, get sad or become introverted when I am upset. Rehaan started an exercise with me using an apple. We threw the fruit back and forth, hard, and with force. I had to almost smash him with it. That action triggered the emotion. I converted that with the prop of the play, which was a tie,” says Koechlin.
What the audience can see is her baby bump, what they can’t is that the baby kicks during shows. “This is my baby’s first show. I think the baby has decided that she or he is also performing,” she says. Six months ago, when Koechlin found out she was pregnant, she called Engineer and he told her Sounding Vanya would be a gentle play of people sitting around a table. It has evolved into a complex production packed with action that, ever so often, even threatens the nuances of the plot. Koechlin is present on stage through its two-and-a-half-hour run (broken by three intervals) carrying out demanding physical actions such as jumping off tables and chairs. “Rehearsals were held in my house in Mumbai, so I could take time out to go to my bedroom and rest. It is good that the baby is growing up with theatre and music. I hope it does not turn out to be too melancholic,” she says, adding that the baby is due on Republic Day.
Sounding Vanya draws upon issues such as relationships, climate change and love, all of which Koechlin interprets into a larger global idea of unity. In the play, Dubey cites a letter written by Chekhov to his brother saying “the only thing that makes marriage interesting is love”. “Love is an essential ingredient for creating a tolerable life, whether it is between you and your partner or, obviously, that indescribable love you have for a child. You have to care and be completely responsible for another human being. That sense of love that is unconditional is very important,” says Koechlin. “Many of us have rifts within our own family members because of our political views. But, ultimately, if you cannot live with different points of view in your family how can you expect a state, country or society to live together? The only thing that can surpass the political is love,” she says.
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