The Naseeruddin Shah-directed “Caine Mutiny” was as much a treat to the theatre fan as a challenge to one’s concentration. EDWINA SHADDICK
Last weekend, Chennai was in court. On trial: Naseeeruddin Shah’s theatre group ‘Motley’; Forming the panel; a full house at the Music Academy; The verdict: guilty of putting up a very thought-provoking, intense play.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Aboard a WWII naval ship, an unpopular Captain Queeg is unceremoniously relieved from duty during a typhoon on the grounds of being mentally ill. His second-in-command, Maryk, is subsequently put on trial for the mutiny. We witness the questioning of several officers and naval doctors to determine if Queeg really was mentally ill, or if Maryk was a disloyal upstart who unduly subverted his superior’s authority.
When we are first introduced to Captain Queeg at the beginning of the play, he is an articulate officer, composed and confident, and whose sanity is not really questioned. As we meet the junior officers, including the ambiguous junior officer Keefer, we use their stories to form a picture of the Captain in our minds. We learn that he is eccentric, meticulous, rigid, occasionally absurd, but insane? Probably not. This seems to be confirmed by the testimonies of the two naval doctors’ expert assessment that Queeg is not insane. A little disturbed, yes. Mild symptoms of paranoia, maybe. But mentally ill, certainly not.
Unfortunately for Queeg, the accused Maryk is also a rather likeable figure in that he is earnest, a little naïve and doesn’t quite seem the mutinous sort. He doesn’t seem unreasonable or the sort to make things up; a little gullible, but not the scheming sort.
The play is largely carried by the two lawyers, defence counsel Greenwald and Judge Attorney Challee. The Prosecutor was played by acclaimed film actor and director Naseeruddin Shah. Shah, who also directed the play, received excited applause upon his entrance to the play. Living up to his reputation as an acting stalwart, Shah impressed with his crisp pronunciation and forceful delivery.
The gem of the play, in my opinion, was Greenwald, played by Aseem Hattangady. The only character on stage who “knows the truth,” he keeps Maryk and the audience in suspense by asking him and us to trust that he will reveal “the truth” in due course. The conflicted Greenwald, who at the start of the play tells his client that he would rather be prosecuting him than defending him, kept the audience in suspense until the end of the play where he deftly, if drunkenly, revealed the twist.
The play is a very intense, wordy performance, and requires that the audience concentrate to follow the plot. Naseeruddin Shah is noted for his preference for ‘poor theatre’, as opposed to dolling up the stage with props and visual cues. He has stated that Herman Wouk’s script is textually rich and believes in challenging the audience, instead of spoon feeding them.
And what a challenge it was! Throughout the two hour play, the audience sat through witness after witness, interrogation after interrogation. With little movement on stage, it took discipline to concentrate on the dialogue, which often contained distracting military jargon. Welcome comic relief came from the smaller parts of the bumbling signalman Urban and the court stenographer.
The intensity of the play aside, the performances from the cast was stellar. Ankur Vikal’s Queeg degenerated into an anxious, nervous wreck that eventually looked like he was having a nervous attack or meltdown of sorts. In the end, we never quite know if Queeg was insane or not. Even when “the truth” is eventually revealed by Greenwald, we’re not quite sure of what really happened in that submarine when it was hit by the typhoon.
All in all, it was a thoughtful play, and hopefully one of many more plays of such calibre to continue being performed in Chennai.
Edwina is a Bachelor in Social Science (Political Science, Sociology) from the Singapore Management University.
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