– Trisha Ray
This year, Dr. Ananda Lal presented three shows of Edward Albee’s 1967 play A Delicate Balance at the American Centre here in Calcutta, from the 25th of April onward. The actors were drawn from a group of students currently studying at the English department at Jadavpur University. The two-hour production was set in a circular stage view in the Lincoln Room – the audience sits in a ring around the set, characters turn, pace and talk just like in a real room instead of a drawing-room with a wall missing which everyone faces; and we the watchers, sitting on the peripheral reaches of the play itself, are allowed an immersive experience that almost certainly cannot be achieved with the proscenium play. The Lincoln Room at the American Centre has recently been refurbished – it retains its proportions, but the acoustics of the room have been so transformed as to throw out your average actor’s need to project altogether, creating an intimacy that is as effective as it can be shocking.
This play of Albee’s is not as well-known as the ‘shocking and objectionable’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it is better accredited, winning Albee his first Pulitzer in 1967. A Delicate Balance as presented by Dr.Lal is a taut, high-tension series of revelations and conflicts that sit uneasily alongside the principles and ideals that govern the central couple’s lives. Tobias (Aritra Sengupta) and Agnes (Rudrani Gangopadhyay) are a middle-aged married couple, denied a stable plateau of domestic peace and stability by the physical and emotional encroachments of their family and friends. Their often-married and frequently divorced daughter Julia (Mayurakshi Sen) boomerangs back home between husbands, always in need of parental solace and comfort. Agnes’ sister Claire (Ananya Kanjilal) is a permanent house-guest, her wittiness and irreverence for social mores severely undercut by financial dependence and alcoholism. Another couple, Edna (Dipabali Dey) and Harry (Somak Mukherjee) are suffering from unnamed and unspecified fears, and ask for house-space. Agnes and Tobias acknowledge these bonds of family, hospitality, and even an unspoken social debt of recognition. The antagonism that flows between characters, rarely bothering to disguise itself under pleasantries, stems from the bitterness planted by the damage people can do to each other while not ceasing to love. Both Julia and Claire are perceived as failures in this time and place of the play – both are without men, both have transgressed socially, both are sexually suspect and bristling with self-defensiveness on various levels. Agnes will comfort Julia, who after all is her child and only an occasional interloper. To Claire, Agnes shows no such possibility – there is a lifelong rivalry and contempt simmering there, erupting in unpleasant boils and malicious cuts during the course of the play. Edna and Harry present an intriguing mirror or obverse of these familial bonds – they are asking, no, claiming, a place in the domestic set-up as a natural debt of friendship. Tobias can be kind to Claire, affectionate of Julia, wary and placating of Agnes in turn. His good nature is stretched when it comes to Edna and Harry, and we begin to see him as a man who believes fundamentally that he owes the world something for being allowed to exist and thus slips through life as accommodatingly as he can. Agnes is a battleship – she will take on drifters, but she will rarely let them forget what they owe to her.
As the play reaches mid-point and relationships and hostilities are established, the energy of the cast begins to flag a little. It is not an easy play to do, and the oldest of the cast is younger than the youngest of the characters. Aritra Sengupta takes a creditable shot at giving us the tired, emotionally exhausted Tobias – in the show I watched, his best scene very nearly generated a round of spontaneous applause, checked only by the continuing tension on-stage. Resentment and bitterness take energy to sustain and erupt – for many of the cast, shrill projection (made frankly unnecessary by the room’s excellent acoustics) and verbal chest-thumping could not compensate for the sudden feeling, creeping up at important moments, that these are after all young people playing much older people, with a much more limited lived range of emotional relationships, as remarked by many of the audience later. Dipabali and Somak as Edna and Harry form a curious undercurrent of unease in the play in general – Edna symbolized the moral expectations and churlish bluntness of an older and more solid age with capable expertise, alongside Somak giving the audience some peripheral physical comedy and perhaps some incongruous perspective as well. I did not like Julia – with due credit to Mayurakshi, I did not think I was supposed to. Rudrani as Agnes elicits a fear of the cannibalistic matriarch; her lines and body language should have brought out some sympathy, no matter how unwilling, had it not appeared that of all the characters she alone had some agency in that she alone knew something of what she was doing and what was being done to her. Grudging sympathy turns to respect and finally to pity, in perhaps the best articulated character of the play, the hinge, as she rightly remarks, of everyone else’s dependencies. Ananya as Claire stands out as the Bohemian dream gone ridiculously wrong – she is an irritant at times, but always one with a point. She was extremely memorable in the play – whether from the fringes or sprawled out on the carpet in the middle of the room, she brings the centre of action to herself with enviably little effort.
The director’s note dedicates this production to the victims of violence against women. Without quantifying the exact nature or perpetrators of the violence, the play does overflow with its possibilities at many tangents. The nature of hospitality and the exact parameters of kinship blur into lines of confusion, possibly facilitated by the enormous intake of alcohol by everyone on stage. Kudos to the stage manager (Amrita Dutta) for bringing off the elaborate stage set-up and keeping count of glasses and bottles, among other duties. Dr. Lal received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end, having successfully translated a very complex work and set into a thoroughly relatable story. The play left the audience in a mood of introspective exhaustion, if not exactly elated by the turn of events, in probably one of the best-produced plays of this year in Calcutta.