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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ibsen lab: Mandala takes Nepali theater to new heights

How artists at Mandala bring about the scenes from different Ibsen plays and amalgamate them with the real life predicaments of Nepalis, with the shared theme of patriarchy

I have not read Ibsen so far, to say rather regrettably. But I have heard a lot about him and his famous play 'A doll's house'. Last year, I had the privilege of watching the Persian adaptation of Ibsen's masterpiece 'The lady from the sea' during Kathmandu Int'l Theater festival. Nostalgia of that brilliant performance directed by Hodjat Tabatabei still lingers and I was attentive not to miss new performance at Mandala titled 'Ibsen lab'. 

In its short but eventful history, Mandala has given some nostalgic moments to many theater lovers like me. After Degree Maila, Sunkeshari was the second play that I watched for second time there.

To be honest, I was rather apprehensive while entering the theater: could the Nepali theater artists, particularly director Rajan Khatiwada, do justice to Ibsen's legacy? In either case, can they match the theatrical brilliance of the Iranian team that transported the packed audience to some Iranian port city through the adaptation of one of the Ibsen's plays? A hangover from disappointing solo performance of Sunil Pokharel at Theater Village last Saturday was also still there. Indeed every new experiment in any realm of art has the potential to disappoint the usual audience; the wavelengths may not match the way they do with conventional art works.

But this time around, Khatiwada and his team have done something commendable. By all means, it was a tough job to pluck out scenes from different Ibsen plays and then to fuse them into a loose narrative. If I were to direct that, a fragmented and incoherent performance would follow. But beside bringing flow and coherence, they have moved a step ahead: amalgamating the theater world with real world. That is probably the best part of the performance.

For one thing, none of the Ibsen plays avoids tangling itself deep into ambivalence, predicament and despair of its characters. They are a brilliant interplay of human emotions and Ibsen ruthlessly pursues the psyche of a character until a keen reader/viewer thinks he/she reaches the bottom of it. For this very reason, performing Ibsen's play is no mean job: the character needs to be as lost in the narrative as the director.

With emphasis on 'A doll's house' and 'The lady from the sea', the performance brings together scenes from about six Ibsen plays thereby telling the stories of more than a dozen characters. Even as the themes differ from scene to scene, the central and more or less consistent theme remains patriarchy and its ramifications. In fact, 'A doll's house' is one of the most acclaimed artistic rebuttals of patriarchy as the defining principle of the society.

And in his ingenuity, Khatiwada has installed a curious 'Doctor' in the play who tries to diagnose the social evil of gender related violence. After many experiments, he discovers the omnipresent disease to to be PDD or the Patriarchal Delusional Disorder.

In between the scenes from Ibsen plays, the characters travel back to the theatrical lives of their own and their own stories of struggle and troubled interpersonal relationships make the secondary part of the story. Given the blatantly patriarchal nature of our society, no wonder that the predicaments of Ibsen's characters appear to reflect the real life predicaments of the characters, all the way in Nepal.

In particular, the comparison between Syphilis or 'Viringi' contracted by a master from his slave and the inheritance of same syphilis-like mentality by his son is illustrative of the complex dimensions of patriarchy: at the end, the women grieves for loss of her husband and now the potential loss of her son as he is once again in illicit relationship with the daughter of the slave, his unknown step-sister, again potentially contracting the lethal disease. The assertion in the subplot that the prospective husband of the lady playing the mother would no longer let her continue her theater activities after marriage gives a strange parallel in life beyond Ibsen's plays.

With 'Ibsen lab' Rajan Khatiwada has scored well in the continuous test the audience takes on every theater artist. Hopefully, he will continue bringing out similarly wonderful performances at Mandala in future also.

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