Vasudev Menon is playing the man of God — and running them down — in Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. The character of Pastor Manders is tirelessly moral, dispensing wisdom such as, “It is not a wife’s part to be her husband’s judge”, and you can almost hear Menon laugh as he acts. “What I am trying to explore is that people who are religious heads of society have a facade but are inherently corrupt. I see that in the corruption of the church and the godmen in India. For me, Manders is a person whose hands are just as soiled as those of the people he is trying to preach to, if not more,” says Menon. At the end of the play, Manders is left with nothing but the facade, but even that begins to crumble. Ghosts, by the group The Drama Queens, opened in Pune on June 9 and will travel to Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi.
Ghosts is the story of a woman whose life was served to her by patriarchy. She has suffered an unhappy marriage with a philanderer who has had an illness. She has been forced to take all control of the house and make decisions for everyone, even her son. In all of Menon’s plays, there is a running theme of a conflict between the establishment and new ideas. In Ghosts, this takes the form of tension between a strong patriarchy — the boys’ club — and one strong woman’s movement towards change that threatens it. “The mother in Ghosts is caught between her husband’s feudal values and that of her son, who himself inhabits the facade of the modern. She must broker between the two and make them function as one unit in one little house. That was very appealing, for I have found the conflict between the archal and the neo-eternal. When there is a fresh crop, it will always question the grains on which the older folks have been raised,” says Menon.
He has always been on stage, a legacy of an artistic family and the Leftist political movement that is deeply embedded in the arts of his ancestral hometown, Thrissur. His paternal grandmother, TA Jayalakshmi was a film actor, and his grandfather, Vasudeva Menon was a film producer. “I grew up on film sets and had a bunch of cousins who were artistically inclined. There was always some kind of theatre or music programme going on in school or at home,” says Menon. The plays that his family took him to were by the doyens of Malayalam political theatre such as NN Pillai, and the influential Communist group, Kerala People’s Arts Club. In Chennai, where Menon spent the greater part of his childhood, there was more theatre, including the English-language plays of the Madras Players.
By 2002, when he left for Edinburgh for his MPhil in immunology and PhD in molecular medicine, Menon was firm in his socialist beliefs. The Edinburgh Acting School and Queen Margaret University provided him with the acting training to get it across to audiences. “I never thought there was a system that you can educate yourself in as an actor. It is a discipline in which you learn rigorously and critically, deconstructing an art form and breaking down the actor to his mind, body and voice,” he says. He studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow in 2004. In 2007, Menon founded the Holy Cow Performing Arts Group in Edinburgh and wrote, directed and performed for shows that were staged at the Edinburgh Fringe for seven consecutive years.
He returned to India in 2013. “I find myself on the thin line between tradition and modernity. If we have to pin it down to the times we live in, I would point to the current political climate that is driving the need for a glorified past. At the same time, there are people who are looking for a way forward rather than aiming to bring back the past,” he says. His theatre drew out issues from the dark margins into centrestage. Hamlet, where Menon plays the titular role, heroes the forbidden love between Hamlet’s mother and his uncle. Merchant of Venice, which he has directed, shows merchants as buffoons and Shylock is neither a villain not a victim. In Ghosts, the director parts ways with the playwright. The latter had scandalised late-19th century Nordic society by referring to a venereal disease, syphilis, in his play. Menon replaces it with schizophrenia to draw attention to mental health issues. “When I look at the symptomatology of syphilis in the play, it clearly wasn’t there. Right now, we are exploring mental illness as a neuropathological terminal condition,” he says.
Does Menon ever feel a conflict with himself? “I am not shy on stage though I find it very difficult to have conversations with people off it. I am always thinking, ‘what if I say the wrong thing?’” he says.