The Water Station

Direction : Sankar Venkateswaran
Writer : Shogo Ohta
Cast : Moon Moon Singh, Ravindra Vijay S, Sunil Bannur, Asha Ponikiewska, Anirudh Nair, Kavita Srinivasan, Yeshwanth Kuchabal, Scherazade Kaikobad, Smitha P, Ishwari Bose-Bhattacharya,Mandakini Goswami, Vinu Joseph, Sunitha, Siddhartha Mishra, Gopalan

The Water Station play review

Vikram Phukan

Sankar Venkateswaran's interpretation of Shogo Ohta's THE WATER STATION is an example of the kind of evocative avant-garde theatre that Indian audiences are not quite accustomed to. It features a procession of actors who traverse what may seem like a few meters on stage but with every moment stretched out lovingly (the play is performed in slow motion), each flicker of emotion acquires the quality of a full-blown tale, each gesture is drawn like a skein and woven into a texture of rich transfixing images that are frozen in time like a series of three-dimensional snapshots that capture illusions, and journeys and transformations without the loss of any small detail. Even as we pay rapt attention to the glacial pace of the actors' crossing, we are caught unaware sometimes by the uplifting cadences that waft our way despite the seeming lugubriousness of it all. It can be a difficult watch for a more restless audience, and some perseverance is required before it all pays off almost in transcendental fashion.


Through the running time of the play, a cast of fifteen actors (playing twenty different characters) arrive at a tap with a broken faucet, from which drips a steady trickle of water, the sound of which creates a buzz in our ears that when an actor finally reaches in with her cup for a drink (having been on stage for more than fifteen minutes already), the few seconds of silence take on an almost deafening quality. In many ways, our composure warrants a physiological reaction to the stillness, like it were a kind of meditative therapy. The travellers walk along a specially created ramp, with lights rigged directly above illuminating the slow passage as they stop and stare and listen and then move onwards-in which each aspect of their being seems to gradually unravel before our eyes, with the subtle lighting aiding each little disclosure. Around the ramp is a junkyard that holds the debris of life as it were, with the familiar and the strange scrunched together-old tricycles, worn suitcases, discarded walkers- the things that don't matter.

No words are spoken, therefore the stories that seem to unfold before us are sometimes a function of our own imagination. There are clues of course. At one point a matriarch (Mandakini Goswami, pitch-perfect) arrives at the spot with her clan, her children carrying a washing line like it were a panoply of primitive regalia. They are not just people, but a whole kind of people. As they look into the distance and are suddenly caught in the throes of an overriding emotion, their silently screaming faces capture agony and rapture and pain and ecstasy, and immediately we are reminded of their struggles (whoever they may be), and how they must have fought for everything that they now leave behind. An old woman (Scherazade Kaikobad, a towering presence) lies dead in the foreground and she underlines the end of a way of life, the conclusion of a cycle. None of these things need to be taken quite so literally but it all seems to fall in place, because silence is a language with which the human condition can now be articulated, and slowness is an inflection that captures it beautifully.

In another transfiguring moment, a couple travel down with a pram that bears only broken items of daily utility. The wife (Kavita Srinivasan) draws out a baby bottle and as she impassively fills it with water, she radiates a strange kind of melancholia. The couple make love at the water station, and it's a cold and aloof affair, but within the mechanics of that encounter their neediness and anguish, with the unsettling murmurs of bereavement that seem to whisper into her ears, is laid completely bare.

Despite the narrative we may be conjuring up in our heads, when it comes to the process, THE WATER STATION is like an acting masterclass where the actors workshop their craft, and the tales that may emerge are purely incidental. The director runs a tight ship, and the players are eager instruments. They focus hard. Missteps can upset the rhythm. Every movement is calibrated. It's not really a long, uninterrupted flow of energy, there is labor and deliberation behind it all, each movement registering the next. The actors cannot lose themselves to their characters. They may be trying to make sense of them as much as us, but right there in the midst of the action, there is no time. There is a palette of colors, but they're not allowed to paint because they have to concentrate and continue moving at that tranquil pace, unwaveringly diligent.

The actor Gopalan, playing a man with a huge load, breaks the tension when he throws his shoe at a pile of junk, and arabesque music emanates suddenly, accompanying his little jaunt to the broken tap, where he amusingly brushes his teeth, keeping time with the music. The unintended comic relief is provided when a figure in the light-room above seems to be ushering him on, and he stands stoutly, and glares at it for a moment that almost seems like a stand-off between the actor and his director. The director is concerned about his pacing gone awry, and the actor wants to build a character (and get some love from the audience, perhaps). In the following show (there were three shows of the play in Mumbai), he is tamed and as he walks into the darkness, his toothbrush and paste fall to the ground, but there is no time to pick them up even in the leisureliness of his course. In the streamlining of his movements there is no place for a person's own volition. He is not a person, just a reservoir of meaning. The director is the mastermind, and he orchestrates the entry and exit of each character, who are like puppets in his hands, and it's a never-ending cycle. As they bear their burdens like in a pilgrims' progress, you can heartbreakingly feel the baggage of their own souls that the actors themselves seem to be carrying, unwittingly perhaps. Maybe they don't really care, and it is just the great unwashed beauty that they're soaking themselves in. It is a wonderful ensemble in any case (with just one weak link) and some of them do leave their own imprint on the pages indelibly.

When Gopalan wears a white shoe to replace the black one he's thrown away, the mismatch of shoes underlines the lack of symmetry that the director tries hard to cultivate. The actors may be incandescent beings, but in their patchwork outfits and worn-out shoes, all the signifiers of race, geography or religion fall away. The diverse cast itself, drawn from all corners of India (and the diaspora), aids the illusion that their separate identities have been washed away, torn out of their clothes, erased. Of course, whether the stripping away of these signifiers results in the audience not trying to push the characters into accessible cultural contexts is a moot point, but the beauty of the piece is that, that leeway is always afforded, because despite the intransigence of his craft, the director is never didactic. It's an offering, or maybe the indulgence of an artist, or his dedication to a form he has pre-selected in an attempt to challenge a theatre culture that thrives only on what is clearly visible and what is clearly audible (and applause counts for everything).

Both shows on the second day saw a mad scramble for tickets, but they also saw several people leaving before the end. The reactions were mixed. There was some negative chatter. It is silly perhaps to think you can correct that response just by shaving several minutes off the end, or quickening the pace. The pacing is what makes it work. There is almost no other way to do it. People may term it esoteric, or obscure, or inscrutable-words that deserved to be banished, they are clichés now. After all, beauty, melancholic or otherwise, is the most palatable of things, and sometimes you must let an emotion weigh upon you, before you can savor its intrinsic flavor. The stillness creates a fertile ground for our own thoughts and memories to permeate the space, and Mr Venkateswaran in this masterful production fills in the blanks with myriad emotions-the compassion, the rapture, the glimmer of hope...

*Vikram Phukan runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions-

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