When German dramatist Georg Büchner passed away in 1837, the work that would become seminal in Western drama, Woyzeck, was still unfinished. Inspired by a true case of a barber who was put to death in 1821 for killing his mistress in a fit of jealous rage, Woyzeck has, since 1913, when it was first staged, become regarded as the first truly work of modern drama — a study of a man’s unravelling into animal bestiality. The incomplete, fragmented nature of the text has become an attraction for directors worldwide who have filled in the gaps with their own instinct about issues, such as family violence and the hollowness of existence. At the Black Box Okhla, a new venue in the industrial part of Delhi, Woyzeck gets a highly physical adaptation by director Nikhil Mehta.
The performance space is a cube within a black box that immediately conveys a sense of claustrophobia — heightened by Deepa Dharmadhikari’s excellent lights — that is Mehta’s prism into the story. “What was the most compelling part of the text to all of us was the psychological effect of confinement. Confinement can be thought about and spoken about in several ways. There is literal confinement, confinement from the social standpoint, and confinement as disenfranchisement and subjugation. The effect of all this on the body is what the text was for all of us. The play is bleak and doesn’t give a solution but does give a hint towards the repercussions of living in an ideological society where disenfranchisement is so rampant,” says Mehta.
Within walls that close in from all sides, magnified movements are choreographed in geometrical patterns as the protagonist, here named Tapan, is subjected to a range of oppressions, especially from the doctor who has put him on a three-month diet of only peas as a research into the limits of human endurance. Played by Piyush Kumar, Tapan is agitated and rushed, unable to rest or sleep as he races from one job to another. Mehta says, “I invested 100 per cent on figuring out the effect of disenfranchisement on the body. We physicalise a lot of the show and the transitions. A professor of mine used to say, ‘You don’t need transitions in a play when you have the body because the body does the transition for you’. We took that to heart in this play in tracking where the body is in every point of this breakdown. Tapan doesn’t have words to articulate so we cannot rely on the words. The words are never what is actually going through him.”
It is after Ranno, his partner, finds a different love that Tapan is still for the longest time on stage, in a face-down foetal crouch. The scenes that follow allow emotional nuances to finally come through and reveal the centrepiece of the story — the psychological meltdown of the protagonist. The latter part balances out the aggressive energies of the former scenes and, fittingly, the cube opens to reveal a view of nature, such as woods and a floor of dry leaves. The murder scene is taut with a madman’s frenzy and is one of the most powerful in the play. For most part on the opening night, at least, the lights and scene design occupied a higher level than the actors’ performances.