As news of the world became bleaker last year, a theatre director from West Bengal took his team to the jungles of Jhargram to find the darkness within themselves. The team of 40 stayed in a bungalow with one halogen lamp among them, and no script or director. “What emerged was the play, Understanding Macbeth, a personal work in which one is in dialogue with oneself,” says Subhadeep Guha, 35. The play will open in April in Madhyamgram, an hour’s drive from Kolkata, where Subhadeep’s father, eminent theatre director Probir Guha, has set up the Alternative Living Theatre. It will tour other cities later.
Subhadeep was searching for the “Macbeth Syndrome” in the primeval setting of the forest. “Macbeth dies but his ambition does not. Let’s accept that we all wear masks, we want to overtake everybody else, we hold on to envy, hunger and greed. We are nothing without power,” he says. Understanding Macbeth also included individual and group sessions with a social psychologist. If Subhadeep is playing with psychology, it is possibly because his father, Probir, had broken ground by experimenting with theatre grammar in the 1970s.
Probir made plays that were the reverse of entertainment. His subjects were of struggle, bad politics, hunger and poverty. His actors were barbers and potato vendors. Shows were held in a one-room school, where audiences sat on newspapers spread on the floor. “All my childhood experiences of watching theatre are dark in my head. My father’s plays would make you ask yourself, ‘Is this how I am? Really, am I good or not?’ They were disturbing performances but somehow people liked them. We started getting shows,” says Subhadeep.
Understanding Macbeth diverges from the text by William Shakespeare in exploring themes such as bipolarism in the leading protagonists. “Macbeth kills King Duncan, but it is Lady Macbeth who cannot sleep. On the other hand, it is Lady Macbeth who wants Duncan dead but it is Macbeth’s hand that brings down the dagger. We found this idea of duality in a lot of what they do,” says Subhadeep. Five actors play Macbeth, accompanied by a nine-member chorus.
At the Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM), the annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama in February, Subhadeep had five plays — in four of which, he was music director. His own directorial work, Long March, was an adaptation of an Aesop’s fable about the race between a hare and a tortoise. In the play, the hare decides he will not fall asleep and, instead, finish the race at one go — and the champion would be decided on merit alone. The facile victory in the race was the only celebration granted to the subaltern tortoises every year, and now the hare was taking that away. The play looks at socialism from both sides of the class divide and breaks Utopian ideas about reservation, equality, social justice, sportsmanship and the value of gold medals in a space rife with human rights violations. “I am interested in Maoism, not the killings, but because the war the tribals are waging till today has so little possibilities of winning,” says Subhadeep.
His other plays are Krishna Kali, in which actors played out the story of Manipur and AFSPA in cages made of sticks and ropes. Red Alert followed Long March, for which he hauled off the performers to an off-site location where they lived almost like the prisoners they were portraying.
Subhadeep’s music, like his plays, seeks out and then breaks tradition. In Long March, he provided a running commentary of the race between the hare and the tortoise using the devotional genre of kirtan, in Fagun Rater Goppo, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he played a dhamsa drum with a broom and a detuned guitar to create a madcap soundscape. In Ilaa Gurhaisha, Subhadeep’s powerful music culminates in the gruesome score of Ganesh Vandana during the scene in which the Maharaja of Cooch Behar Bir Narayan rapes his daughter. In the dialogue-heavy Shekal Chhenra Hater Khonje, a story about a blacksmith’s son who becomes a Leftist leader, Subhadeep performed a song from the Naxalite movement of the 1970s. “Understanding Macbeth is styled as soliloquies in verse. There is a lot of music there, too, because life is also a celebration.”