Engagement with the unusual
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur
e-mail: padmajayaraj@gmail.com 
Photos: GB Kiran

January 20, 2010 

"Theater is the only religion I believe in..." said Naseerudhin Shah. He was inaugurating the second edition of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala 2009, in Thrissur. 

"The stage for me is a sacred space..."Although popular as a film actor, his commitment is to theater. During the Face to Face, Shah recalled how he felt his mission in life even at the age of five. He narrated how his introduction to great actors nurtured his commitment to theater, and somewhere down the line, he made the choice to remain passionately attached to his first love, side-lining the glamour of the silver screen for theatre which is in fact, a fringe activity.

Shah believes in the power of the word; believes an actor's job is that of a messenger. For him, a play should engage with the unusual, that it should leave a deep human impact. And as a director, Naseerudhin Shah aspires to give the best to his audience. Indeed, CANE MUTINY COURT MARTIAL, the inaugural play directed by Naseerudin Shah is one that made a demand on the audience.  Performed on the bare stage, fifteen people in the cast, it is one of the finest court room dramas of the post World War II, produced by Motley Theatre, Mumbai.

The theme
Based on the novel by Herman Wouk, the drama presents what war and its accompanying stress does to people. The issues the play raises remain relevant because humanity still remains in the compact zone despite two world wars. Millions of soldiers have followed orders to martyrdom. However, exceptions exist even in war. This court room drama is about an exceptional incident, of people who are exceptions. As in the novel, the play explores the possibilities of absolute truth.

Mutiny takes place in a US Marine ship. The control and charge of the vessel is taken over by the executive naval officer, Stephen Mayk. Commander Queeg, the Captain of the ship is overthrown. The play deals only with that section of the novel that narrates the ordeal of Lt Stephen Mayk who is on trial for mutiny. The play is set in the Second World War era and offers an insight into the lives of those who fought the war. No matter what a war is fought for, the forces indulging in it have to do away with their personal opinions and concerns. They must follow orders to the valley of death. So while examining the tragedy of war, the play probes the psyche of those in the forefront. In just two acts, it lays bare the trauma that wars create for human beings. 

Unique presentation
On the stage, we see a group of men. Among them, is a nervous naval officer, another in casual clothes exuding irreverence. Soon there strides in a man of importance in suit, egos clash; and the keynote of the drama is struck. The nervous officer confides his fears to the defence counsel who is famous for fighting for the cause of the underdog. Soon the court room fills in, the lawyer takes his place and a panel of three judges occupies their seats. The audience sees only their back and head as cross-examinations take centre stage. It is the military court; men in uniform appear, men who were witnesses to the drama in the vessel on that fateful day. In naval and legal jargon, the play ambles along involving audience participation with meticulous details. 

Despite the uniform clothes, individual traits of each person is striking, in their body language, in the delivery of dialogue, and in facial expression. Pride in a career, the nature of the mission in war time, risks involved, stress and strain, strength and weakness of individuals, concern as well as disregard for other men come to the fore, making the incident complex for analysis. One of the witnesses is a writer whose jugglery of words creates confusion. Soon doctors take charge of the situation whose psychoanalyses in medical jargon confound everything. Whenever the defence counsel tries to unravel the truth from a layman's angle, the lawyer rises with his so called objections. We become aware of the rigidity of the legal system. Ironically, it is engaged in winning the case rather than imparting justice; the truth has many faces, medical nitty-gritty makes medical ethics difficult to practice. And human nature drives the elusive Truth beyond the grasp of Justice. The three judges announce a recess before the verdict. The play, thematically, ends here. The verdict is not given, not likely to be given. Perhaps the fiasco is an endless saga in the history of our times.

The crowning glory
To many, the last scene seems redundant. But,for Naseerudin Shah, the last scene makes the play open-ended with a touch of mystery. The complexity of reality is highlighted in this scene, for, the party scene makes the play whole, subtle, and profound. In a surrealistic mode of presentation, the play explores the elusive truth. Away from the confines of formality, free from the legal tangle, the search for truth continues at the subconscious level. The defence counsel, the warrior of the underdog, points his fingers at the writer and wreaks his revenge by pouring liquor over the head of the writer. The audience leaves the hall seeking the hidden truth in its mindscape, in an open-ended drama. Truly, the play is an engagement with the unusual.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com