Gandhi! the (fascist) musical
Several days later and I'm still laughing about this. I didn't get to Be In the play, after hanging around all Friday at "rehearsal" (i.e., 35 people chilling, stretching, chatting, making up little dances with scarves) until 12.30am. The part for me had previously been cut from the script and the director couldn't find the time to figure out where I might fit in. I am okay with this, considering the incredible ridiculousness of the show: a 4 hour epic musical ghastly/hilarious spectacle.
First let me say that the English script, as I read it, was a realistic play showing the humanity of the many characters (especially Gandhi and his wife but others too) in a multifaceted, not-entirely-valorized light. As in, it's about the real people, not the heroes and villains of political memory. Translated into Sinhala and Tamil and portrayed by a zealous (and overacting) cast-of-thousands, it was a marathon tale of a pitiful/godlike man's struggle to save literally-enchained people from evil colonialists and power-mad Swaraj demagogues. I found it by turns absurd, hysterically funny, and offensive.
The dancers/chorus were always switching off between silly and sillier outfits. They started with tie-dyed bodysuits and knotted waist-scarves, progressed to shiny lamé “peasant rags,” and later showed up in a range of poufy froufrou bridesmaidsy dresses (the women, at least). This was made more strange in that the bridesmaids were performing serious, intense, lamentful traditional dances. There was a whole semi-erotic number with Kasturbai Gandhi (the wife) dancing and moaning in a frilly satin nightgown with eight guys in gold spandex. Also, easily half the men had been decked out with luxuriant mustaches and fakey wigs.
Gandhi is played by the director**, a six-foot-tall, built, pudge-sporting bruiser. (They sort of elided all the fasting bits.) It dawns on me that a major cause of Gandhi’s success could be drawn to the visual semiotics of a wasted, skinny, barely clothed yet immensely brilliant and strong person. Nonviolence doesn’t have the same meaning when you look like you could tear the entire beefy Raj limb-from-limb. When he decides to get rid of Western clothes, he strips from Chaplinesque pinstripes-with-beret-and-elastic-bow-tie to tight little briefs and undershirt, belly flabbing out. Never thought I’d see a stage depiction of Gandhi’s bait’n’tackle!
The racist South African jailer of the early scenes, written as white, was depicted as a black man, i.e, with a Sri Lankan actor in blackface. Classic Jolson blackface, with ‘fro wig and whitened lips. Likewise, the written-as-eloquent Untouchable who shows Gandhi the need for caste solidarity was depicted as a cringing monkeyman. The male chorus appeared as a swarm of loinclothed, drooling, retarded wretches, moaning and picking bugs off each other. I was cringing in my seat.
I should here say that it seemed the Kandy audience loved it, so my sense of aesthetics is perhaps tweaked. I want to direct a play here (show people how much better theatre can be) but made me question whether my work would really be “better” given the sensibilities of Sri Lankans. This show had wailing and screaming like you wouldn’t believe and I wouldn’t direct. The lead actors were intense and melodramatic, which is a good thing when you consider that the biggest problem we often find in amateurs in the States is that they’re undercommitted, can’t make big-enough choices.
Just found out that someone (whom I know indirectly! like I know everyone in this country! yes!) is doing Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends in Colombo at the end of July. Check it out here: http://fefu.blogsome.com/. Must inveigle self. I am so desperate.
All in all, I wanted to apologize to my friends for dragging them to the show. I myself enjoyed it intellectually if not as a piece of quality art. Indi says that the people responsible for this
*actual stage directions from the script
**most every play I’ve seen here has the director as a major character. This is something I would never, ever do. Thou canst not direct thyself.