Nobody smiles in a play by director-scenographer Deepan Sivaraman, unless it is at a prey. Dark characters and their victims occupy centre stage, skeletons burn, bleeding hearts throb, brides give away their foetuses and real animal intestines fester on actors’ bodies as Sivaraman, 40, seeks to expose the ugly side of human nature.
His play on the 1920’s classic horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), a platform where the director won Best Play and six other awards in 2010 for Spinal Cord, an adaptation of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. At Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama (NSD), in Delhi last week, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the unsettling tale of insanity and murder unfolded in a rundown warehouse space at Ambedkar University in Kashmere Gate, where Sivaraman is associate professor.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is, primarily, about a young man, Francis, recalling the horrors that have befallen him since the mysterious Dr Caligari arrived at a village fair with a somnambulist called Cesare, who sleeps in a coffin. Francis’s friend Alan has been killed, his fiancée abducted and a cruel blood stain is spreading through his own hands. The psychological drama unfolds through choreography and unconventional visuals that recall primal and childhood fears of strangers in the dark. “We treated the play in a surreal way because the film is a hallucination. We want you 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?” says Sivaraman.
Flawed and vulnerable protagonists have always been an integral part of his work, including in his biggest production last year, The Legends of Khasak. “Most of my work has a grotesque element to it. Life is not pretty. You cannot be afraid of the dark. In India, most art forms — be it painting or classical dance — celebrate the concept of anandam. But life is not just about happiness. We are going through troubling times; if we don’t deal with the darkness in human nature, then we only live with superficial ideas of reality,” says Sivaraman.
Sivaraman brings audiences on stage and takes away the traditional comfort of distance between the stage and the seating. In The Legends of Khasak, Sivaraman constructs a U-shaped stage, half the size of a football field, under the sky, to seat 750 people close to the action. The audience can smell the talcum powder that is applied on the doddering old bridegroom, see the creases on the new clothes that he is made to wear and touch the skull cap he puts on before being taken to marry the youthful Maimoola. When smallpox breaks out in the play and people begin to die, a fire, as tall as a man, is built at the centre of the stage. “He is constantly looking at making objects and landscapes relate to the audience,” says Anuradha Kapur, former director of the NSD, who has collaborated several times with Sivaraman.
Most directors would consider the text and the actors to be superior in the hierarchy of theatre elements, but Sivaraman doesn’t bother with script and dislikes dialogues. For him, performances have to be lived experiences. “To understand the kind of work I do, one has to liberate one’s conventional thinking. When you watch a theyyam performance in Kerala, a ritual enactment of an old myth, you don’t look for the story of Muchilit Bhagwati, the learned young girl who made the men of her villagers so jealous that they tricked her, drove her out and forced her to kill herself. You experience it. When you go home, it will remain with you; you don’t follow the entire narrative but the experience of it,” says Sivaraman.
Born in Vasupuram, a village near Thrissur, Sivaraman grew up surrounded by myths and rituals. The magic realism that defines his plays are like after-images of his childhood, when he would “walk on full moon nights with the elders to leave coconut shells full of meat and alcohol under mango trees for dead ancestors.” A single diya would be left with the food to provide light. “This was a ritual followed for more than a hundred years. When we youngsters rushed back to drink the alcohol after our uncles had left, it was like sharing food with the dead,” he says. Other rituals and folk forms were more violent. “As a folk form, theyyam is not organised because it is not Brahminical or Sanskritised. It is not about well-fed audiences sitting and watching Radha dancing with Krishna. I don’t think we have explored the tribal theyyams that deal with the hard stories of life,” he says.
Sivaraman is notorious for punishing the audience. It’s Cold in Here was based on a Gabriela Garcia Marquez story, The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother, about a young girl who is sold into prostitution — or so the brochure said. Instead, episodes of rape and violence play out in the production and Erendira finds the barest mention. “The moment you give a linear structure, the audience switches off their brain. The moment you make a fragment structure, you force the audience to think. The audience has to be alert, awake all the time and cannot sit back and relax,” says Sivaraman.
In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Sivaraman places the performance space between the audience and the door, thus closing the route to the exit. Does he really hate the people who come to watch his plays? “I love my audience,” he says and bursts into laughter. “You don’t have to treat audiences as gods and heroes, you know. The whole idea of proscenium theatre is that you make comfortable seating for the one who is rich and pay more. All things are perfectly arranged, artistes come and show their best bodies and the audience sits and assesses them from a privileged position. I want the audience to be as engaged in my work as my actors. I want to treat all of them as equal,” he says.