By Sumedha Iyer
As we took our seats in the theatre, the actors were on the stage chatting amongst themselves, rehearsing lines and practising their blocking for the evening’s performance. There was no cocoon of darkness for the audience to make themselves comfortable in as the show started – the lights stayed on even as the sutradhar/chorus A.A. Larry ordered the actors into their places. This departure from the usual theatregoing experience was intentional; the audience was to be involved in the ‘bedtime story’ to come.
Kiran Nagarkar’s play was extralegally banned for seventeen years after its release in 1978; it cast too critical an eye over the Hindu epic the Mahabharata for the likes of many religious fundamentalist groups. In the play’s retelling of the Mahabharata, the epic’s casteism and misogyny come to the surface. The sinister subtext of this beloved ‘bedtime story’ reverberates through the events of contemporary Indian history and politics that are spliced throughout the play.
Joyraj Bhattacharjee’s direction of the play was faithful to the Brechtian style of the original text. The set and props were minimal but sufficient. The actors playing the Pandava brothers in order to establish their physical prowess ably used the boxes onstage. A deliberately jarring Bollywood song-and-dance number erupts when Arjuna and Draupadi profess their devotion for one another, only for the sutradhar/chorus to angrily remind the actors that the story must continue. At times awkwardly timed blocking compromised the actors’ recitation, which disrupted the flow of dialogue. For the most part the play moved along nicely; the first half was particularly strong.
Standout performers included A.A. Larry, whose stately stage presence and commanding vocal delivery was just right for the role of the sutradhar/chorus. Neel Banerjee was suitably honourable and hapless as Arjuna. But the strongest performance of the night was from Avantika Tomar. Her magnetic presence coupled with her energetic, emotionally nuanced delivery breathed life into Nagarkar’s sharply written dialogue, and held the rapt attention of the audience for every scene she was in. Tomar’s turn as the brutalised wife of a freedom fighter in West Pakistan had the audience transfixed with horror.
It was a rare treat to see a modern Indian play performed here in Sydney. Major theatre companies in Australia tend towards two kinds of productions. They like to reproduce plays from the European/American canon – it seems like Hamlet and Waiting for Godot are always running somewhere. But they also like to be seen to be doing their part to redress Australia’s cultural anxiety about getting ‘Australian stories’ told. Bedtime Story is an Indian story but it is now also an Australian story. It is told by Australians, and speaks to so many of us. South Asian voices are an imperative part of Australia’s cultural landscape too, but they are not heard as often or as loudly. This makes Nautanki Theatre’s production of Bedtime Story all the more vital and precious. Nagarkar would be pleased to know that his play was produced with the attention and devotion it truly deserves.
Playwright: Kiran Nagarkar
Director and Design: Joyraj Bhattacharjee
Concept: Neel Banerjee
Producer: Nautanki Theatre
Cast and Crew: See here
Riverside Parramatta, June 4-6 2015.
Sumedha Iyer is a PhD student at UNSW. Her dissertation is on the way migrant and Indigenous fiction interrogates the White Australian national story. She has taught English subjects at the University of Wollongong and published a journal article or two. She also rants sporadically at strangers on the internet: batlyfaffled.wordpress.com.