The setting seems cosy and familiar enough: a middle-aged woman is sitting in an armchair, attending to her mail. The chair looks comfortable and light is warm and inviting. But the music, growing in ominousness each time the central three-note motif is repeated, cues us in. Something sinister is afoot, we realise, and this impression is cemented by the woman’s occasional sharp glances to the sides, as if she believes somebody is watching her. Then, soundless and pale as a ghost, a young girl comes into the room. She heard a scream and is too terrified to sleep. Her aunt tries to comfort her by telling her it’s an owl. But the girl, who had sneaked out to trace the source of the scream, has questions — what is her uncle doing outside? Why was there blood on the floor of the shed? And why, when she put her ear against the side of the lorry outside, did the girl hear the sound of people crying inside?
This is how Caryl Churchill’s Far Away begins, and in the succeeding scenes, the sense of disquiet only grows. Rehaan Engineer, who has directed the play, which opened last night at Sitara Studio in Lower Parel, is faithful to the original text’s intent. He mounts the tension higher and higher, ably assisted by the cast, which features Sheeba Chadha, Kalki Koechlin and Vivek Gomber. The music, composed by Naren Chandavarkar, is particularly effective in relaying the anxieties of the characters to the audience.
This is not the first time that the reclusive Engineer has adapted one of Churchill’s plays; he has previously staged the playwright’s controversial Seven Jewish Children. However, the choice of Far Away is a particularly apt one at the moment, given how any public discourse in the country dissolves into the paranoia of the ‘with-us-or-against-us’ outlook.
Far Away, which was written in 2000, is set in an unnamed dystopia where fear and paranoia have wreaked such horror that war is rife and everyone — including nature — has been forced to choose sides. “It’s set in a world where you don’t know what to count on,” says Chadha, “You can’t trust anything — the people, the plants, the animals. The whole text hums with this underlying tension.”