All Thieves purports to be a dramatic work. Actors Ankur Vikal, Denzil Smith, Heeba Shah, Imaad Shah and Om take short stories by Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Mohan Rakesh and Kamatanath and attempt to refashion them for the stage. Presented by Motley, a theatre company begun by Naseeruddin Shah who is one of India’s finest stage and screen actors despite playing Captain Nemo in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, All Thieves appears to continue a legacy of turning short stories into plays. Motley has in the past picked up stories from Urdu and Hindi literature and turned them into unexpected little gems of stagecraft, like Ismat Apa ke Naam and Katha Collage. Like the stories in All Thieves, the stories of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto (two Motley favourites) are all about language. To hear Naseeruddin Shah or Ratna Pathak Shah bring out the mischievous rhythms and graceful cadences in the narration was quite, quite special. Heeba Shah, who has performed in a number of these literary productions of Motley’s, seemed to have picked up that skill from her father and stepmother. Ankur Vikal, another Motley regular, was excellent as Manto in Manto Ismat Haazir Hain. With all this as background, you’d think All Thieves would be good. From the thieving perspective, it’s effective. It successfully robbed me of Rs. 150 and two hours of my life. From the theatrical perspective, I’d like to have the production smothered in slug slime. It would be more dramatic than what they made me watch.
Yesterday, over 120 minutes, Motley’s young guns proved to us that they are water guns – annoying and forgettable – and that star kids should not be encouraged. I’d like to blame the disappointing performances by Heeba Shah and Ankur Vikal (who were definitely the best of the meagre talent on show) on incompetent direction but I’m pretty certain there wasn’t much direction at all. They’re all geniuses. Imaad looks like a spitting image of his father therefore he must be as gifted. Heeba and Ankur know everything they need to know about the stage. Denzil Smith has a voice that comes out of his toes. What would any of them need direction? Let them simply stand on stage and recite the stories. We in the audience will gaze at them gratefully for having had the opportunity to witness the savaging of some outstanding well-written stories that were never meant for the stage.
Art has a white cube, theatre has a black box. They’re blank spaces that need to be negotiated so that they don’t end up devouring the multicoloured little people scuttling around inside them. I’ve no idea how they do it for art shows but well-displayed shows tend to suggest a path, like Hansel’s trail of breadcrumbs. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you don’t take the trail but if you do, it generally works better. In Barcelona, I met a young curator who was putting up a (bizarre) group show in a little gallery. He spoke no English and a little French in a thick Spanish accent, which meant he was actually still speaking Spanish but he randomly dropped a couple of consonants here and there. He told me something that sounded terribly basic – every thing you place has to have a reason for being there. You need to have things in an order which will make a viewer appreciate the thing that follows a little bit better. You are essentially guiding the viewer to notice nuances, appreciate details and make connections. The connections aren’t necessarily between the works but between contexts and concepts that a quality work of art should evoke. Either that or he was telling me that a line of small ants was crawling up the wall behind my ear where he was going to hang a picture of many naked Chinese people.
It works the same way in the theatre. Stagecraft can’t just be about doing what is cool. If you’re going to use comedia dell’arte techniques, then there has to be a reason for it. What is the point of an empty stage if all it’s going to do is look empty when the story you’re performing on it doesn’t demand that emptiness? Stark stages look very poetic, especially when lit romantically. But is there a reasoning behind why you’ve lit just that part of the stage? What is the illusion you’re going to draw your audience into with the little slice that you’ve illuminated?
The most disappointing thing about All Thieves was how little thought had gone into it. Authors whose names you drop to impress the cute chick/guy were picked to tell us how well-read these young actors are. The stories weren’t being adapted for stage. They were simply elaborate costumes made of words that the actors hoped would show off their best parts. There was no appreciable reason why Heeba Shah was laying out a table while telling us about a light-eyed man who kept noticing her untied shoelaces. Why was the table and tablecloth physically present but not the table settings, which she mimed somewhat dodgily? Because it was cheaper to do it this way? Because it was too complicated to have all those props? For two hours, we watched supposedly professional actors put up something like a school play – an indulgence that is performed for how cool it makes you in your little circle.
I don’t know how old the cast of All Thieves is but I’m going to say they’ve just hit puberty. Only at that age do you think that 2 hours of continuous wanking is entertainment. In case of All Thieves, it was intellectual wanking as opposed to the more hormonal variety but it was about as much fun to watch.