It is dark in the hall, when a women appears through the door dressed in white and holding a single lit candle in her hand. In one corner, a man sits hugging an aquarium inside which is a forest with a tiny doll dressed as a bride. Another man is dancing with a female scarecrow that wears wispy white. A third man plays a dull white piano. White is the colour of dread in the dark nightmares of childhood. Delhi-based Deepan Sivaraman, famous for recreating blood and beating hearts, fire and skeletons in his plays, plunges to new atavistic depths with his play, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The play is being staged in an old warehouse once used by engineering students of Ambedkar University. Sivaraman, a faculty member at the university, directs his performing arts students in this play. An interview:
I first watched The Cabinet of Dr Caligari more than 20 years ago. The film was made in the silent era in the 1920s and is considered the first horror film. The plot begins with Francis, who is sitting with an old man and wants to tell him a story more strange than any he has heard before. His story is about Dr Caligari and a somnambulist called Cesare whom he keeps in a cabinet shaped like a coffin. Dr Caligari claims that Cesare can tell the future and he is never wrong. Cesare predicts that Francis’ friend Alan will die before dawn and he does. As Francis and his fiance Jane begin to investigate the death and other deaths that follow, their lives takes a horrifying turn.
Screen to Stage
Converting that into a play was a challenge because there was hardly any dialogue in the film. We treated it in a surreal way because the film is a hallucination of one character. In one sequence, we have used video shots of a fairground with Ferris Wheels and a merry-go-round but the people are all mechanised toys. Toys bring back different kinds of memories. It enables us to ask, ‘what made Francis think of this storyline? What made Francis sick? Who was the murderer, if there was a murder at all? And who is Cesare, if Cesare exists at all? Who is Dr Caligari? Is he the healer or the villain?
We don’t show the death of Alan. Alan comes on stage and tells Francis that he had met Jane that day. He says, ‘But I forgot to say good-bye to her.’ Alan and Francis shake hands and they part. The moment Alan leaves, we see that Alan’s hand is filled with blood. He tries to open the water pipes on the stage but they are not working but the moment he sits down, Francis sees that the taps have begun to run and there’s blood coming out of them. We installed taps all along the hall and the audience can see blood sputtering on the floor.
A warehouse is a realistic kind of space. This place was always here but I could get my hands on it only recently and I was looking for a space like this to do this play. Most scenography and dramaturgy builds according to the space and the warehouse offered me many ideas about death. When Dr Caligari tells the town clerk, ‘Mark my word, Cesare is never wrong’, the clerk begins to laugh. He laughs and laughs and laughs and the audience sees that his body is moving up, lifted by a pulley high up to the roof of the warehouse where he hangs dead. Every time a murder happens, Dr Caligari plays the piano.
At Ambedkar University from today till Feb 10. Entry: Free.