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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review of The Snow Queen, staged at the Metro Plus Theatre Festival, Madras, 2012

Play: The Snow Queen
Cast: Amaka Okafor, Jaskiranjit Deol, Balvinder Sopal, Eric Nzaramba, Pooja Ghai, Shalini Peires
Director: Rosamunde Hutt
Playwright: Anupama Chandrashekhar

It isn’t often you get to watch a friend’s play staged. And it isn’t often you watch an interpretation of one of your favourite fairytales. And when the two come together, your biggest fear is that you won’t like it. It’s hard to be open to other interpretations of the stories we love, the characters we consider our own.
I read the story of Kay and Gerda in the beautifully illustrated edition of a collection of Fairytales, when the book was about half as tall as I. I remember Gerda speaking to flowers on her way to rescue Kay. I remember Kay’s cold hauteur in the Snow Queen’s palace. And I remember his eyes glowing as the icicle lodged in one of them melted at the touch of Gerda’s tear.
Perhaps Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens were my favourite storytellers, growing up, because they acknowledged that children can see, experience and understand suffering too. That one’s childhood days are not a string of happy memories. In Anupama’s version, Kay and Gerda become Kumar and Gowri, but she retains that sharp tinge of sadness and loss that haunts a life that is close to perfect, that can even claim it. However, in her play, the Snow Queen is humanised with a back-story of loss.
You know this is a physical play when it opens at the court of the Snow Queen, where two sisters are on trial for laughing. Dialogue and movement combine to make the scene funny, even as the menacing power of the Snow Queen pervades the room.
We fast forward to where an old woman Patti (Pooja Ghai) is telling the story of the two sisters to best friends Gowri the Geek (Amaka Okafor) and Kumar the Adventurer (Jaskiranjit Deol). Until the Snow Queen (Balvinder Sopal) enters their lives and spins them into a quest that will make them lose their childhoods forever, she is just a legend, an enchanted being with power over an element they have never seen from their houses in Kanyakumari – snow.
While the brochure says the play takes us through different parts of India, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, the only definite locales I could sense were Bombay and Rajasthan – the latter mainly because of music that reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia.
To say much more about the story would be to give away delightful little diversions into Indian preoccupations, obsessions, biases and customs. So let me just say the timing of the actors is impeccable, and the pace of the story quite perfect. It does require a degree of patience we’re not used to in Indian theatre – with plenty of song, dance and sub-plots, this musical-of-sorts demands more of its audience than comedy, satire or drama, because it’s all three combined.
Like Andersen himself, Anupama incorporates enough asides to make the play appealing to the adult in us too. Some of the humour, especially when the play takes on the Indian entertainment industry, may appear trite to those who are used to spoofs. I would urge those people to look at the body language of the actors, and listen to the dialogues at this point.
The fact that each of the actors takes on multiple roles keeps the audience guessing at who is really who. Has Gowri found Kumar already? Is the Snow Queen deliberately misleading her? Was Patti actually one of the sisters?
That very fact makes it a very demanding play from the actors’ perspective, especially since it is a very physical play too. The performance I saw was an improvised one – one of the members of the original cast, Asif Khan, was not able to make it to India in time for the show. It is testimony to Anupama’s, Rosamund’s, and the actors’ tremendous talent that the absence of an actor took nothing away from the play, which was altered over a week. This meant all the actors had to learn new lines and different movements, and had less time for costume changes and character switches. They excelled.
At one point, the cast has to switch from Received Pronunciation to Indian accents. I mentally groaned when I realised this was going to happen, because no one does Indian accents worse than Indians who haven’t grown up in India. Thankfully, this cast seems to have had a better accent coach than others. There was no exaggerated sing-song, no ridiculously drawn out vowels. They sounded like some of us do. And this is some achievement, because there were two – and a half – people in the cast who are not even of Indian origin.
The sound design, by Arun Ghosh, complements the play, tracing geographical and emotional landscapes to calibrate the play. While everyone in the cast was extremely capable, I would reserve a special mention for Balvinder Sopal and Jaskiranjit Deol, who arguably had the toughest character switches. Balvinder Sopal’s graceful dance movements are captivating, and her remarkable ability to fit into the skin of each role she takes on is admirable. Jaskiranjit Deol not only had to play a lead actor, but also fill in for Asif Khan, along with Eric Nzaramba. And the energy he brought to his performance lifted the play, whose 120-minute duration makes pacing crucial.
The Verdict: I’d say paisa vasool. And I paid Rs 500 for it.
To know more about the show, and book tickets for upcoming performances, see this page.


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