At the end of Othello, Desdemona is murdered in her bedchamber on the suspicion of being unfaithful. Yet, when asked the identity of her killer, Desdemona responds, “Nobody; I myself”. The Shakespearean tragedy is usually enacted as the saga of a troubled Moor. Now, a group of Bengaluru theatre practitioners borrow Desdemona’s last words to study history and mythology’s missing women.
“Why does Desdemona say nobody killed her? The death was the act of punishment because of the notion: if the woman has betrayed a man, she’s to be killed. There are parallels in our own stories. Sita has to keep paying for somebody’s illusions about her sanctity. Desdemona doesn’t fight back by even naming Othello. Sita, similarly, accepts her punishments as a woman’s need to prove herself free of guilt,” says actor-singer MD Pallavi.
The play, Desdemona Rupakam, explores relationships between famous couples of classic literatures by probing the bedroom as a site of vicious power struggle. It will be filmed in an empty hall and streamed globally as part of the annual Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival. Though unintended, Desdemona Rupakam opens at a critical time, when national anger surrounding the Hathras (alleged gang-rape and murder) case has trained the lens on misogyny in India. “The incident is deeply disturbing. It isn’t outrightly mentioned in the play but the text is about these events,” says Pallavi.
The first place that the politics of a play is reflected in is the rehearsal room. Abhishek Majumdar-directed Desdemona Rupakam is dominated by women – actors Pallavi and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy, dramaturge Irawati Karnik and production manager Veena Appiah. “So many times,” says Majumdar, “the women in the room said, ‘Are we ending up saying that Othello is a bad guy?'” Gender negotiations aren’t as simple as calling the guy bad. “There are bigger things, which we have been trying to explore,” he adds.
Using folk forms like Harikatha, yakshagana and yellamma nataka, and Tishani Doshi’s poem The River of Girls, the script includes stories of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, where a ring is a proof of a woman’s identity, and Renuka and Jamadagni, where the wife is cursed for desiring a celestial being flying above her. “Women face brutality every day. It’s unfortunate that this line still holds good. Why do some of them stay silent? We need to rescue ourselves because no one else will,” says Appiah, who has worked as a production manager for over two decades.