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Ten Plays On My List

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It is a given that plays need to be performed or at least read aloud to be fully appreciated. But reading a well written script silently can be immensely satisfying as well. All you have on the page is some dialogue and a few stage directions. The rest is your imagination at work. You visualise the characters, decide how they talk and walk and what they wear, what the beats and silences signify, what characters say and what they actually mean, what the stage picture looks like and so much more. Most of us unfortunately are not in the habit of reading plays unless we are looking for a play to perform. Or for academic reasons.

So in the hope that more theatre lovers start reading plays for sheer pleasure, Theatre Ink has asked a range of theatre makers and playwrights to share ten plays that they would recommend and that have had an impact on them.

We are excited to kick off this series with the master playwright Mahesh Dattani.

TEN PLAYS ON MY LIST – Mahesh Dattani

1. Abhigyan Shakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala) by Kalidasa

This play became the backdrop to my play Where Did I Leave My Purdah. The love story, loss of memory, and the ultimate recognition of a person resonated so well with my protagonist’s journey. Besides, it was the perfect play to represent a company theatre through the decades after the Partition.

The Recognition of Shakuntala is Kalidasa’s most popular play written probably around 4 Century AD. The story, originally in the Mahabharata, is among the most adapted of Indian love stories worldwide, including several ballets. English translations are plenty, some of them as early as the 18th Century. To the West, the play was a perfect introduction to Indian Classicism in poetry and drama.

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2. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

My introduction to Greek chorus was made decades ago through this play. I was shocked by the story of Oedipus Rex and its climactic moment of realization and the resultant pathos.

Themes of patricide and incest may be hard to digest even today. It is considered a great masterpiece in world drama. Today, the name is iconic because of the Freudian psychological condition named after this tragic king.

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3. Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Difficult to single out any one of my favourites among Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth has all the ingredients of film noir. Mystery, the darkness within and without, and an atmosphere of moral decay. I see it not as Macbeth’s tragedy alone but the tragedy of a society consumed by unscrupulous ambition. A moral void that subsumes compassion, love and other life-affirming virtues.

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4. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

If at all I am to say a play influenced me, I think this would be the one. Not only did it introduce me to perfect dramatic structure, but also the concept of feminism. This masterpiece of modern drama created a sensation for its controversial ending when it was first performed in 1879. A woman slams the door on a marriage in which she does not feel validated as a person. This domestic drama is brilliant in its unravelling of the protagonist’s journey from a plaything to an awakened woman, marked by dramatic tension and an explosive climax.

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5. Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca

My fascination for Lorca began when I saw Ebrahim Alkazi’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba in Hindi with Seema Biswas playing the rebellious daughter. Later I directed two of Lorca’s plays, Yerma as a student production and Blood Wedding in the USA for ICS Theatre Company.

Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding) is a dramatic poem of love, dishonour and the inevitability of passion’s victory over fidelity. It is operatic in its scope and yet filled with rich dialogue that impacts even in translation. The plot is around feudal conflict and family allegiance, themes familiar to Indian storytelling, with a rural setting in a moralistic and repressed society that values death over dishonour.

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6. The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht

My introduction to Brecht came from a workshop I attended in my teenage years, conducted by Fritz Bennewitz. He made us read the Caucasian Chalk Circle as a perfect example of Brecht’s epic theatre and the use of aesthetic distance in the narration.

Probably the most widely performed play by this modernist German playwright. The play has been adapted to almost all Indian languages. Based on a parable about a peasant woman being a better mother to a child than the child’s rich biological parents. This play has Brecht’s unique narrative style akin to traditional Indian theatre with a storyteller, musicians, and a play happening within the play. Available to English readers through a definitive translation by Eric Bentley.

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7. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

A play I use often in my script analysis workshops. I had directed this play in adaptation with the FTII students in 2010. The play lent itself beautifully to an Indian setting of an estate in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.

One of the finest plays written with a strong psychologically sound narrative style that ushered in Realism in modern theatre. The story of an aristocratic family on the verge of losing their beautiful estate to debts is universal. While one may sympathise with the loss to the aristocrats, one also welcomes the winds of change tipping the scales of social justice in favour of the working class.

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8. Five Modern Noh Plays by Yukio Mishima

Mishima is the most prolific writer to come out of Japan. He is known for his themes of loneliness, sexuality, love and death. Not only does he use the traditional conventions of Noh Theatre but his setting is very contemporary, creating a world that is timeless. As one critic points out, “The emotion of these plays is so communicable they could be performed anywhere in the world.” Tuttle publishers have brought out a fine English translation by Donald Keene.

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9. The Djinns of Eidgah by Abhishek Majumdar

It is hard to have a dispassionate voice when it comes to stories set in Kashmir. I read Djinns of Eidgah in its first draft when Abhishek, a former student of mine, sent it to me for my feedback. Majumdar creates a story with multiple perspectives, ranging from two Indian army soldiers bunkered in a remote valley to the post-traumatic stress disorder of a young Kashmiri girl who watched the brutal killing of her father. But the story is held together with the legend of Hamza and the djinns who live on after death. Magic carpets and imagined battles make the perfect metaphor for this drama on complex political and cultural relationships. The play was written originally in English and was later translated to Hindi by the playwright.

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10. Free Outgoing by Anupama Chandrasekhar

Anupama had joined my workshop in Chennai arranged by the British Council almost twenty years ago. This play brought her into the limelight with a successful production at the Royal Court Theatre, London moving from the intimate space to the mainstage in a span of one year. I directed a production in Chennai.

Set in a middle-class Brahmin housing complex in Chennai, this is a searing drama on morality and public shaming. The neighbours, the community, society in general, the country and the media are all under the spotlight as they psychologically annihilate a teenage girl for her chance sexual encounter with a schoolmate, captured on video and circulated across the nation. The well-written play grips you like a thriller would.

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