It really is a shame that I don't manage to keep this blog up-dated more frequently. For instance: between this post and the last one, I've been to Irvine and back, having spent a wonderful weekend with a buddy from Bombay days -- but already the current of events has carried me far enough beyond that visit and into the next excitment, i.e., the Berkeley production of HARVEST.
Irvine was fun. I and my friend K have been planning to catch up with one another for ... ohhh ... maybe 10 years? 15 years? She's a molecular biologist and has been living in southern California for a longish while, but things took a dramatic turn in her life two years ago, when she had twins. I had never met any other members of her family before -- so this visit was a sudden immersion, a warm and very happy one, into all kinds of new dimensions: husband, mother-in-law, children, wow! And all extremely and unusually interesting, charming, great to be with. It turned out that the weekend that suited K best was the one on which the twins' second birthday was being celebrated. So the day after I got there we -- K and her mother-in-law A, visiting from India and me bringing up the rear -- got into gear for the party. It is SO astonishing to be in the presence of very small children -- the sense of so much potential packed into a small, mobile unit which can talk a certain amount and is recording everything and yet ... is not quite of this world, is still faintly mystical with newly-arrived otherness.
Before leaving me at the airport K, A and I went for a stroll along the sea-front, enjoyed a balmy sun-lit view of the great blue vastness of the Pacific. Then it was time for me to leave. John Wayne Airport with the great hero striding towards an impossible horizon, twice-life-size, in bronze. Peanut snacks and apple cider on board the flight. Arrival in Berkeley, where E collected me in the car we have rented for the remainder of our stay in California, during a sudden drizzling down-wash of rain.
Back in Berkeley -- just four days later, but so much change! The night before I flew out, we -- meaning E, our hosts Laura and Kiran and myself -- shifted out of one charming residence and into the next, also supremely attractive, but just a bit further north and up a hillside, in Kensington. The new home is constructed such that guests (we are the first!) get a little cottage all to themselves, complete with kitchenette and a great view. At the time I left, only survival furniture had been moved from one residence to the next. When I got back, civilization was well-entrenched: chairs, bedside lamp, floor rugs, the works ... I was amused to notice what kinds of items, normally unnoticed, were the ones we missed most at the time of the first move: teaspoons, kitchen towels, garbage bins and mugs! The basics for drinking a hot cup of tea, so vital for keeping morale high during times of stress.
And so ... to the play. Well, last night (Friday, 11th November) was the opening night and I finally saw it with all the tech in place. For those of you who attended the unfortunate performance in Delhi and have been interested ever since in the play's history, let me say this: it was better than Delhi. HOWEVER ... but I need to backtrack here in order to be coherent.
I saw two rehearsals before last night's performance (that was about three weeks ago, when I first arrived in Berkeley). Both times, I will frankly confess, I was deeply disturbed. The play was -- alas! Yet again! -- NOT what I'd like it to be. However, one great relief for me was that I was able to express my views to Sudipto; and he took it very well -- because I had also, at the same moment that I told him what I thought, also decided that I would NOT interfere with his interpretation. I told him that too.
He has added at least an hour of performance time to the play, including lines, movements and moods that are in no way part of the original. For instance, he has permitted his actors to use a number of Hindi-isms such as "arre", "beta" etc -- which I find very hard to accept because (a) I am not a Hindi-speaker and specifically resisted falling back on ethnic touches of that sort while writing the play (b) the use of Hindi is a reminder that the family would never normally be speaking English and besides the actual words and terms are cliches, utterly colourless in themselves. I far prefer the play to inhabit a language-neutral space by remaining in ONE language, rather than attempting to balance uneasily between two.
Yet, for all that I disliked -- and it was/is a real dislike -- I recognized that this production, being fuelled by students and their youthful energy, had a kind of vulgar logic. The four principal characters were played by South Asians [-- I've deleted a portion here at the request of a visitor --] and it seemed very important to them to explore the specific ethnic identities of their characters. It's hard for me to express what I want clearly, but it's something like this: since I don't feel the need to underline the fact that I'm Indian/SouthAsian, it is utterly unimportant -- no, more than unimportant, actually UNATTRACTIVE -- for me to make a big deal about that identity. I want to go the other way -- I want to universalize the experience of being whatever -- Asian/Indian/whatever -- and to explore the notion of sameness-in-otherness. Whereas for this production, what seems to have overwhelmed the tone is the heavy spice of Indianness.
I believe it doesn't help the play at all, because the language and ideas don't support it but ... and here's why I didn't interfere ... I wanted to see whether or not I would be alone in my belief, and whether Sudipto's conviction that the play has a context (meaning, an INDIANNESS) that I, its creator, want to deny, would prevail.
OKAY! So back to yesterday's performance. Seeing the play with all its technical effects in place was definitely a plus. There was an interesting take on the GINNI scenes: instead of being shown any views of Her Blondeness, we only heard her voice -- and four different girls read GINNI's part, adding a curious layered effect, so that it was unclear how many people were speaking -- while the Prakash family members looked up at the bright light which represented her presence. Because this permitted them to face the audience, we had a stronger sense of their reaction than is usually the case with the GINNI scenes in other productions of the play AND -- a great bonus -- the audio was delivered live, from backstage, so the annoying tension of pre-taped video was avoided. The final scene, between JAYA and VIRGIL was unusually powerful -- better than most that I've seen -- and VIRGIL's voice was also live, a gravelly male voice, strangely wistful, I thought and quite effective.
It still irks me, of course, that the play is (a) soooo long (b) soooo ethnic. That's not what I wrote and it certainly isn't what I like to see. It becomes an ordeal at this length, like one of those interminable dance-dramas I used to hate so much as a child. Whereas HARVEST's ideal run-time is about one and a half hours, this is almost THREE! By mid-play, I found myself wanting to drown the whole, whining, screaming, wailing, whimpering family of four grotesques -- that's what they had all become, human gargoyles -- it seemed to me no-one could possibly care about what fate lay in store for such creatures. But ...
At this moment, I don't know if I am alone in my dislike or not. I have realized, from listening to a couple of others talking about the play, that the desire to see a production drenched in ethnic context is apparently very great. Enough to overturn other aesthetic considerations ... maybe? I don't know.
At this moment, the second night's performance is still going on ... and I am sitting in the director's office, tapping out these notes, feeling slightly naughty as I do this, feeling pleased to finally be able to get these views off my conscience and out onto the net. I've been suppressing my opinions until opening night, because of course I didn't want to presume upon the performance until I'd SEEN it, complete. And once the performance is over -- there's another hour and a half to go -- I and Sudipto will engage in a talk-back on-stage with those of the audience members who choose to remain. E is in the audience again, and this time Laura, Maya and Becky are all present too ...
Much to look forward to -- and much left to report upon! In just another few hours.