Let the drama unfold
Shalini Saksena speaks to Nikhil Mehta, director of Woyzeck, who has adapted the most performed and influential stage play in German history, to Hindi for the Indian audience
The year is 1836. Germany’s Karl Georg Büchner, dramatist and poetry and prose writer considered to be part of The Young Germany Movement, is busy writing a play. Unfortunately, he dies, aged 23 of Typhus after a 17-day battle with the illness, in 1837 and leaves behind an incomplete play — only the narrative is written. It remained so till 1879, when Karl Emil Franzos published the complete version including the sequence of characters. However, this version, one theory says was totally reworked. It was only on November 8, 1913 that the play finally saw the light of day. It was produced by Max Reinhardt and staged in Munich, Germany.
Since then there have been several adaptations including an opera, a musical and even a film. Interestingly, when the play was first staged back in 1913, the name was Wozzeck. The story goes that Franzos couldn’t properly decipher what Büchner had written in his very small handwriting. Also, the pages were so withered that chemicals had to be used to understand the text.
With such a history, it was only time that the play found its way into part of the curriculum in almost all drama classes including India. “I came across and read Woyzeck when I was in drama class. Besides having a great history what is fascinating is that it was left incomplete and that means that it can have several interpretations —depending on an individual’s perception,” Nikhil Mehta, founder and artistic director of Black Box Okhla tells you who has adapted the play into Hindi using the most widely accepted version of the play — The Oxford, Victor Price, translation.
Woyzeck questions the moral constructs that contain the animal inside a human being. It challenges the fragility of social behaviour and the devastating impact of disenfranchisement. It is the story of a young man’s descent into madness as he grapples with his place in the world.
The Indian version stars Piyush Kumar as the main protagonist and is supported by other actors like Samar Sarila and Farhad Colabavala. “Getting the right cast was a bit of a challenge since Delhi is not exactly a place where theatre comes alive. But that doesn’t mean the city lacks talent. There are several good actors,” Mehta says.
The reason why this play is so popular is because for directors like Mehta, it is exciting that Woyzeck is fragmented and it leaves a lot to interpretation for the artists who are working on. “It leaves a lot of space on how you want to string the story through it, how you want the thematic elements. It is very rich is ideas with what one is playing with here. This excites many directors and actors who can enter text and be able to create their world out of it,” Mehta says.
While this helps the performers, it is extremely difficult as well since Büchner never wrote the scene sequences even though there is a clear narrative. “It becomes difficult in stringing the characters and that is what is exciting,” Mehta opines who has been an assistant director for the Broadway Sunday in the Park with George and assisted Vishal Bhardwaj on workshops for Monsoon Wedding The Musical and Rangoon.
He tells you that Black Box Okhla was created and it is what it is today, to counter the traditional performances that run in the city. This he feels limits the content that is coming out of the country. “In the last few decades theatre has not changed, it looks the same and feels the same. The blame lies in the programme model — weekend or festivals. When you have limited shows you are limiting the entry of the audience as well. When the audience is limited, one is not growing the audience. Then if one is running only one show, it has to be economically viable. When you do this, theatrics has to be done away with, restricting what theatre is. There is need to run a show for at least a month. Hence, my aim is to reclaim the space since many popular centres don’t allow you to do a lot of things. There is need to build an environment within which you can work and this is what makes it possible to stage plays like Woyzeck — to find new vocabulary,” Mehta says and tells you that it took him around four months to put things in place and wants the audience to look at the psychological impact that Woyzeck leaves.
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