Literature meets theatre
James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol and Frank O’Connor come to life at the upcoming edition of a lit fest that puts the life and works of the illustrious writers on stage
IT’S mid-November. And the ever-so-slight nip in the air is reason enough for Mumbaikars to go out and attend events that enliven the city’s cultural and literary scene during this time of the year. Back with its eighth edition, Tata Literature Live! commences tomorrow with an array of panel discussions, book releases and debates that form the mainstay of the four-day event. Regulars at the lit fest are also familiar with the line-up of performances that celebrate the written word on the stage.
This year, however, in the words of Quasar Thakore Padamsee, the organisers were quite lucky. “The idea behind all the performance pieces is that the audiences of Mumbai should get to see work they don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to,” says the theatre director, who has curated the performances for the lit fest. “This time, we have plays from Ireland and London based on the life and works of renowned writers, a performance by a Swiss author who prefers to call himself a narrator, and a story told through the lens of mathematics by two scholars, which all bring the written word to life in unique ways. A spoken word performance is part of the line-up as well,” he adds.
A leaf out of Ireland
Two of the works to feature at the lit fest have been written by Declan Gorman, who has been the theatre director at Dublin’s City Arts Centre and has facilitated a number of large scale public art and drama projects in Ireland. While The Dubliners Dilemma is based on a collection of short stories by James Joyce, The Big Fellow is a reflection on Frank O’Connor’s biography of Irish freedom fighter Michael Collins and the noted writer’s own growth.
“I had wanted for some time to create a play based on Joyce’s Dubliners... but it was not enough simply to stage these beautifully crafted stories: why do that? They read perfectly well off the page. Then, I tumbled upon the strange fact that Grant Richards, a debonair London publisher, had been among the first to reject Joyce’s manuscript but had turned around suddenly eight years later and requested to see it again. My curiosity was piqued,” says Gorman in an email interview.
When asked if publishers today are as sceptical about offending sensibilities, he replies, “In today’s world, it is almost impossible to believe that the stories of Dubliners were once considered scandalous, so subtle are their hints of licentiousness and depravity. Today, it is less about offending sexual morals, and more about offending power blocs on one hand or minority groupings on another. The irony is that you can surf the Internet now and read almost anything. So you have this un-policed virtual sphere side by side with an increasingly repressive social and publishing world.”
One of the reasons The Big Fellow is part of the line-up, says Thakore Padamsee, is because it is the story of a freedom struggle, something Indians can relate to and yet, have something new to take away from.
Mental health chronicles
The Diary of a Madman, based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story that is often considered his best, comes to the lit fest stage through the pen of Wales-based Robert Bowman, who has also produced and performed the play. The play, which sticks to the diary-entry format of the original work, revolves around a low-ranking civil servant whose need for power and unrequited love lead to his descent into insanity.
“The play is about the idea of mental health, what madness is, and whether we have really moved on in our treatment of the mentally ill. Because when it was written, there weren’t categories of illness. We wanted to follow the text and see what it suggested, rather than label the protagonist,” says Bowman over email.
The short story, it is said, is often given the short shrift when compared to other forms of writing. Does Bowman agree? Short stories lend themselves to solo acts, where actors have only the audience and the technical aspects of the show to respond to, he answers. “What is nice for the audience, I think, is that they are still being asked to use their imaginations. It’s not all there on a plate for them like in a film. There is great scope for short stories to work in this way and perhaps find a different audience,” adds Bowman.
Getting the act together
Closer to the event, things get busier by the day, what with the logistics of coordinating with international guests among other things. But for Thakore-Padamsee, the frenzy has been on since April. “From visa-related issues to processes to genuine health concerns of whether the pollution is as bad in Mumbai as in Delhi, it’s been a rollercoaster,” he reveals.
“With literary grants almost non-existent in India, playwrights and performers from abroad sought local grants in their own countries to make this visit and an extended tour possible,” he shares, adding that almost all the plays will travel to other Indian cities after the lit fest. “When such efforts are pooled in, it becomes one large family.”
Frank O’Connor is often called an unlikely biographer for his work, The Big Fellow: Michael Collins and the Irish Revolution
The protagonist of the Diary of a Madman makes interesting discoveries along the way.