After watching the first 5 minutes of “The Flying Wallas: Opera Noir” at the Prithvi Theatre Festival a few days ago, I decided thin people can get away with anything. I was listening to a (bald) man reciting poetry in his gravelliest voice and a (bald) woman who spoke her lines in high-pitched song, as though she was an Indian version of Bianca Castafiore (only scrawny instead of buxom). When she wasn’t singing, she looked like a homeless junkie who had found a Swan Lake dancer’s costume in the trash. My seat was in the centre of a row so I couldn’t even get out. Unable to understand what she was warbling and able to predict most of his rhymes, I decided to focus my energies towards causing the forces of the universe to do painful things to the friend who had said this would be “interesting.”
Which goes to show that I’d do well to curb my enthusiasm for being unenthusiastic. Because “The Flying Wallas: Opera Noir” by Sridhar/Thayil ended up to be good fun and rather intriguing. In fact, many of us in the audience wished it had been longer. “The Flying Wallas” is about a pair of acrobats or trapeze artists. He in his white suit haunts her. She, glittery and wearing something between a tutu and a corset, was his partner. They were The Flying Wallas, a pair of trapeze artists known for performing death-defying routines without a safety net. One day she changes their routine slightly, he isn’t able to reach her or perhaps she doesn’t catch him, and he falls to his death.
Most often, Thayil walked around casually and flapped his hands a few times. Suman Sridhar sang beautifully but her movements was either as mannered as a wind-up doll or slack. Thayil has great stage presence and a bad head for remembering his own writing. For the better part of the play, he was reading from a script he carried on stage. He’d finish reading a page and then it would ripped out, and left to flutter to the ground. Sort of poetic and very obvious that Thayil needed his lines before him. Sridhar’s songs alternated with Thayil’s elocution. The background music was occasionally too loud and frequently discordant, possibly as an homage to John Cage. There are some delightful musical moments in “The Flying Wallas”, not the least of which is when Sridhar, in perfect tune and using her wonderful, unwavering classically-trained voice, sings, “What the fuck?”
“The Flying Wallas: Opera Noir” was not particularly good theatre. It had a lot of cool music, some interesting poetry and it didn’t spare a thought for the conventions that generally govern the structure of a play. The stagecraft was unimaginative and smacked of sloth. The play began with a drum, a platform, a chair and the chalk outline of a fallen figure; all of which were in a bluish circle of light. This looked lovely and left the stage to be used by the actors but randomly strolling around counteth not as “using the stage”. The one element that was used was the square, black platform in centrestage. A few times, Sridhar stood on it, as though poised to leap. Now and then, Thayil sat on the chair, turning the platform into a table or perhaps a judge’s desk.
But I don’t think Sridhar/Thayil were looking to give Complicite a run for their money. Sridhar/Thayil is a band. She’s a singer with a Macbook, he’s a poet with a guitar and if Prithvi Theatre Festival deems this to be theatre, then it’s not for Sridhar/Thayil to argue. The city’s many English theatre companies, like Rage and QTP, may feel miffed but there’s one thing that Sridhar/Thayil did with “The Flying Wallas” that most plays aspire to do: tell a story engagingly. The idea of a vengeful ghost haunting someone isn’t particularly novel and neither is the story of being racked by guilt when your loved one dies. However, considering the fact that one of the city’s better-known theatre groups decided to put up a theatrical adaptation of — brace yourself — Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” recently, let’s not start beating our chests about being unique. “The Flying Wallas” never lost sight of the fact that they needed to make the audience interested in their story. So there we were, wondering, did she actually kill him? Is he just taking out his anger at not being alive upon her? Is he blaming her because he can’t accept that he, the founder of The Flying Wallas, made a mistake? Has she gone mad or is that just what he’d like to believe? Is she imagining the whole thing? Does she realise he’s playing with her? Is she really there or has he conjured her to keep him company in his limbo? Just for the possibilities in the plot, “The Flying Wallas: Opera Noir” is more engaging than 90% of the theatre writing I’ve seen in Bombay this year.
And let’s not forget the gossipy angle. If I had a cap, I’d doff it to Jeet Thayil for having the courage to go on stage with “The Flying Wallas” because every single person in that audience who has heard of Shakti Bhatt must have wondered how much of this “play” is autobiographical. When Bhatt suddenly died and her family chose to be very tight-lipped about the cause of death, rumours flew about what killed her and there were malicious whispers about her relationship with Thayil, her husband. The fact that he hooked up with Sridhar (romantically and professionally) very soon after Bhatt’s death didn’t help his reputation much. Watching “The Flying Wallas”, it was impossible not to wonder whether the memory of Bhatt’s death had inspired Thayil to write the helpless rage of Sridhar’s character as she tries to explain her innocence to a ghost that refuses to listen. I’ll admit it: It didn’t strike me while I was watching but once it ended and I was outside the theatre, I couldn’t help wondering whether the ghost, who is bitterly furious at having lost life simply because of a tiny slip, was Bhatt. Or was this all that was left of Bhatt after the rumourmongers had taken over the memory of her life and death?