It’s tough not to notice Ovlyakuli Khodjakuli in a crowd. The Uzbek director moves though the National School of Drama (NSD) like a hip monk, his grey-flecked beard wild in the breeze, his hair held back in a ponytail. Three earrings — one resembles a large safety pin — complement an embroidered jacket. “Many people have asked me to play Rasputin, but only as a joke,” he says. He speaks no English and his daughter Khodjakulieva Gunesh translates as he speaks.
It is hard to reconcile Khodjakuli’s easy attitude with his formidable reputation. The director ticks the superlatives in his theatre — his subjects are tough and the action is heavily physical but neither compare with the radical sets. In The Persians, staged last year, he had actors swing like acrobats in hoops of fire while the bottom of the stage opened to reveal a pit that would fill with water. Last week, he staged Byron’s Cain, a story of Adam’s son who murders his brother. Khodjakuli is now directing Delhi-based actor Jhilmil Hazarika in To Kill or Not to Kill, a play in Hindustani, English and Assamese, in which William Shakespeare’s misogynist character Hamlet meets Euripedes’ Medea, a woman angry with men.
Long after we forget the story, the actors and the dialogues, the images of your plays linger on. Why are sets so important to you?
It is true that the text does not stay in the memory but what is important for me are images. What kind of images will the audience carry with them out of the production? Text is a basis for the set design and way of speech. In To Kill or Not to Kill, the actor uses elements such as stones and straw and passes through fire to arrive at a moment of truth.
Medea and Hamlet never meet, so how have you brought them together?
It is an original script and very difficult. The narrative is about a woman who has been pushed to the edge, she is desperate and has also started to lose her mind. Some great tragedy has happened to her and she starts to speak about life in the language of Medea and Hamlet. Hamlet hated women because he felt betrayed by his mother. Medea was betrayed by her husband Jason. In our play, the woman protagonist is neither Medea nor Hamlet but she uses their language to express her tragedy. She has a straw puppet with her for company. Jhilmil Hazarika is working a lot and the play is working out.
There was a lot of straw on stage even in Byron’s Cain, the front rows could smell the hay.
For me, it is is necessary to use things that we see everyday and don’t pay attention to. Mud, stones and fire, for instance, people expect these around and never notice them. I imagine the stage is like our planet. In Byron’s Cain, we used two pipes suspended from above. They were like the hands of god. From one hand, water falls on the stage while stones drop from the other. With one hand, god gives life and, with the other he punishes. We have a short time to make a play and I have to pump out my head. It is how I see this world.
The play will be staged as part of Bharat Rang Mahotsav at NSD Open Lawn on February 10.
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