Nautanki Theatre
Nautanki Theatre

Nautanki Theatre is proud to gets its name published in the following prints.

Theatre Review: last Dance at Dum Dum

By: Catherine Skipper

Venue: Riverside Theatre (Lennox)
Written By: Ayub Khan-Din
Directed By: Lenore Robertson

Khan-din’s play focuses on an isolated Anglo-Indian community household in the Dum Dum district of 1980s Calcutta, struggling to survive changes that have left them displaced culturally, feeling disowned by the British and despised by Indians. The impoverished and aging residents “holed up” in a decaying bungalow represent a currently dwindling minority of mixed British and Indian ancestry, whose native language is English, and who under the Raj held lesser administrative posts. After Independence (1947) many of this distinct population were either absorbed into local communities or sought a new life in countries like Australia.

The play opens with a distraught Muriel Marsh (Ann Geenen) trying to throw objects over the rusting garden wall at strident revellers next door. Introduced very soon is the bungalow’s landlord and Hindu fundamentalist Mr Chakravatty (Dixit Thakkar), who pretends offence at Muriel’s behaviour, although it seems the noise is very much a deliberate provocation. The little community is in arrears of rent, and it is apparent from Chakravatty’s unctuous manner that he despises his tenants and intends to evict them. The audience understands well enough that the residents are living on borrowed time, and money, while they willfully perhaps, or helplessly, devote their energies to holding a dance. Nostalgically, Muriel recalls watching such a dance as a child: “It was magical.”

All of the inhabitants of the bungalow are caught up in the used-to-bes and might-have-beens. Muriel, now suffering from a brain tumour and subject to fits of uncontrollable rage, remembers that she could have been an actress. Her husband Bertie (Marty O’Neil) recalls her as she was before her illness. Mr Jones (Michael Mouyat) remembers his wife and is deeply attached to the very orderly garden she planned with lawn and cane furniture and which forms the decorous stage set. Daphne (Cristina Barbara) remembers her French lover who deserted her and Violet (Suparna Malick) obsessively and comically collects images of a colonial administration she revered. Lydia (Penny Day), “a real Englishwoman” with a double-barrelled surname who joins the household, remembers the India of her childhood, and the house help, Elliot (Neel Banerjee), remembers his successful impersonation of Marilyn Monroe. In fact the funniest moment belongs to him as, after describing his raunchy performances to Lydia when she asks him to perform for her, he says, “I’m too shy”.

To an extent, the characters seem like escapees from an Agatha Christie country house crime novel, with an often too tentative stage presence and overly histrionic outbursts or unconvincing enthusiasms. Yet, their performances somehow fit the more brutal concerns of the play. While they dither, Mr Chakravatty plots. In a scheme that has resonance for the present day, he reclaims the bungalow’s precious garden as a sacred site of Lord Krishna, who once stubbed his toe on a rock in the vicinity. He overreaches himself, however, and he is caught up in mob violence, which he and his supporters originally incited themselves, and has to seek a very temporary refuge with his frightened but altruistic tenants.

While there is no solution offered to the problem of cultural displacement within a group’s own homeland, Last Dance at Dum Dum does highlight the failure of both isolation and withdrawal and of oppression and persecution to achieve a productive national future. Nautanki Theatre does a great service to our community in presenting a play that raises issues which we, and many communities worldwide, are not addressing successfully. Congratulations to the well-rehearsed production team on a smooth running first night.





Last Dance at Dum Dum
Review by Ellen Becker

Before the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel captured hearts and minds with its tale of English retirees retreating to an Indian retirement village, Pakistani-English playwright Ayub Khan-Din penned a well-intentioned tale of aged Anglo-Indians in a run-down colonial bungalow in Kolkata. Given his characters’ colonialist predilection for affirming Bombay over Mumbai, I guess I should correct myself on that –Calcutta, rather.

Instead of Best Exotic’s inward-looking gaze, Khan-Din replaces character studies with mouthpieces, each representing a certain slant on the Anglo-Indian identity in post-colonial India. Muriel (Anne Geenen) is fighting valiantly (and seemingly under the influence of a brain tumour) to defend the Anglo-Indian minority from the “fascist” Hindu Nationalists next door, represented by the serpentine party leader Mr. Chakraborty (Dixit Thakkar).

The bungalow’s matron, Daphne (Cristina Barbara), is the resident peacemaker, trying to quell Muriel’s “turns” while placating the cunning Chakraborty. Frequently derided for her indifference, Daphne’s dark past reveals a running theme of turning a blind eye. Punctuating the growing tension with welcome comic relief is Violet (played with excellent comic timing by Suparna Mallick), an ardent Anglophile who hoards the dwindling detritus of British India and frequently alludes to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (the birth of the British Raj). A latecomer to the mix is Lydia (Penny Day), an English widow who absconds from Thatcherite Britain to live out her twilight years in India.

While the characters lament their precarious identity in modern India, age-old tensions between the minority Muslim community and the Hindu majority are bubbling into frequent and brutal riots beyond the garden walls. As the oldies prepare for their annual dance, blood once again fills the streets of Calcutta.

After Khan-Din’s incredible success with his Olivier Award-winning debut work East is East, Last Dance at Dum Dum was considered anticlimactic (soon redeemed by later work Rafta, Rafta... in 2007). His poorly sketched characters in Dum Dum lack subtlety and nuance, functioning as conduits for a thinly guised didacticism. The cast of the Nautanki Theatre treat the work with supreme verve, but the disconnect can’t help but spring from between the pages. Despite the shortcomings of this production, Nautanki Theatre Company continues with its commendable mission to bring diverse voices and experiences to the stage, and its a pleasure to see this mission come to fruition.




Bed Time Story

By Kiran Nagarkar.

Nautanki Theatre. Lennox Auditorium, Riverside Parramatta. June 4 – 6, 2015

Review by Carol Wimmer

The ancient epic Sanskrit poem the Mahabharata, which tells of the Kurukshestra War and the fates of the Kaurava and Pandava princes, has been adapted for a contemporary audience by novelist and playwright Kiran Nagarkar. The title A Bedtime Story is slightly misleading in that, despite some humour, the play contains scenes that are a little violent and quite confronting. Nevertheless, the adaptation keeps alive one of the oldest and best known Indian legends and realises Nautanki Theatre’s aim of “cross cultural experience … the Indian way’.

Enthusiasm is at the heart of this production. Every performer shows the ‘buzz’ of being on the stage in a performance that is so essentially Indian. The story lends itself to some interesting staging ideas, some physicality, some dance, and more than a little philosophising, mostly from by a tall, prophet-like figure who introduces the play and emerges in a spotlight beside the audience with explanations and words of wisdom.

Props are minimal – two broken columns and some wooden boxes – and, in one scene, a large vase filled with hot ice. Here the Pandava princes enter a competition to win the hand of the princess Draupadi. Their task is to string a heavy steel bow and shoot the eye of a moving artificial fish while looking at its reflection in the pool below. The action is all done in mime, but the effect of the men staring into the swirling mist from the hot ice is quite effective.

With fifteen performers and many scenes, director Joyraj Bhattacharjee uses projections to introduce and sequence some of the scenes and explain how the playwright has linked them to more contemporary issues and conflicts. After all, the Mahabharata was one of the earliest pieces of writing that asked whether the suffering caused by war can ever be justified and advocated such things as fair treatment of captives and the wounded.

There are also some scenes that decry the treatment of women, and these are handled with clarity and strength by actor and dancer Avantika Tomar. Sure of her lines and confident in their delivery, Tomar is an asset to the production, lifting the pace and action whenever she is on the stage. With a mixture of experience but a great deal of enthusiasm, the other performers tell this age-old Indian tale of families in conflict. The twelve men at times use physicality effectively as they portray the problems of inter-family conflict and the aftermath of war. There are also some moments of humour.

Suparna (Bobby) Mallick introduces the play as a mother with five year old Rhea Daithankar lying on her lap waiting for a bedtime story. She begins by humming Where Have all the Flowers Gone before starting her tale. In a nice twist, she reprises the song at the end of the play – its circular message about the uselessness of war emphasising the theme of the original Sanskrit verses.







Once upon a time, in the Land of Bans, thinking was banned. Anyone who thought and asked questions was executed. A few seasons ago, the freedom of speech had been banned. And not long before that, meat, films and books, and authors and lesbians alike had been banned. Censorship was the law of this land. The custodians of the Land of Bans were big believers in God and they told the people of the land that through their bans, they served Him.
Then one unholy day, God decided to have some fun. He created a playwright to poke fun at Himself and to question the unquestionable authority of the holy epics from which the Land of Bans derived its morality…

Thinkers like Kiran Nagarkar must have been created by Him (perhaps after a night of drunken debauchery in the Heavens?) to add some real perspective (and the missing sense of humour!) to the lives of men. But that was not to be. Instead, Nagarkar’s “Bedtime Story” came back with 78 cuts in a 74-page play, “thereby leaving only the jacket covers”, from the custodians’ razor-sharp censorship in 1978. By a heavenly twist of fate, the book is now back in print and was recently staged by Nautanki Theatre at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta.

The performance started with breaking the “fourth wall” between them, the actors, and us, the audience, as the sutradhar or narrator (A.A. Larry) directly addresses us. Nagarkar’s writing is simple and sharp. His dialogues move swiftly and his thoughts cut deep. In the play, he attacks the revered Indian epic, the Mahabharata, for its gender and class biases and exposes us, we who are the passive witnesses to religious wars, genocide, ethnic cleansing and climate change. There is also a parallel contemporary story-line (where a wife wants to run her deceased husband’s family business and is mocked by her brothers-in-law) that reflects the same gender bias that has percolated through the epic. He tells us through the sutradhar how we will soon lose our tongues and our conscience (like we lost our vestigial tails) as these are slowly becoming redundant due to under-use. He jolts us and reminds us that “someone must pay the price” for all the wrongdoings.

The props and settings were kept basic and simple. A screen served as the backdrop and setting, providing flowcharts for those unfamiliar with the epics, which was essential. Wooden boxes and a mirror on wheels were the other props used. However, minimal props require powerful acting, a performance that is delivered not just through mouthed dialogues but through the body.

This expectation of mine was heightened when, to much elation, I found out that Joyraj Bhattacharjee was the director. Bhattacharjee, whose performances I have enjoyed in Tim Supple-directed Midsummer Night’s Dream and the acclaimed Bengali film Herbert, is a very physical actor. Nautanki Theatre had a strong cast and a few actors who owned the stage and outshined the others (such as Avantika Tomar’s Draupadi, Chira Fernando Jr’s Bheem, Dixit Thakar’s Duryodhan and an adorable Krishna played by Sadiq Rehmani) but they do not come together as a team. As individual actors, they arrest you, but as a team, their performance lacked gusto and involvement.

In a Nagarkar play, an actor already knows that s/he will have thought-provoking lines, witty and sharp banter (excellent for the momentum of a performance) and a contemporaneity which travels past boundaries of land and culture (for instance, in the game of dice played between Dharmaraja and Duryodhan, they bet on current issues like nuclear submarines, biological warfare, Mitsubishi and Microsoft, etc). And, the collaboration with Bhattacharjee and with his prowess in physical acting movement should have been a wholesome experience!

However, the only hint of physical acting, which lasted for over a minute and hence left a mark, was during a dialogue between Arjun (Neel Banerjee) and Krishna, where the latter sits atop (very wobbly) wooden boxes and Arjun climbs and crawls through them. The unsteady props did have me a bit worried there as Krishna sat on top holding on to dear life, but then again Krishna is a fallen god here, as depicted by Nagarkar – a “god who needs calling” as Draupadi mocks him after she is violated by the Kauravas while Krishna, in his defence, claims that he was waiting for her call.

The costumes were simple but appropriate. A cool Krishna, with a peace tee and earrings, and white trademark-Jitendra shoes, evoked cute smiles from the audience. Bollywood songs offered some more comic relief as did the scene where Krishna, as Arjun’s charioteer, drives him around the stage in a wheel barrow! However, the use of several accents, I am not sure, was necessary. It was not clear if the accents were the actors’ natural accents as they were quite inconsistent.

Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is perhaps the only play in which the climactic moment dictates the death of the audience, who are led to the gas chamber guilty of being passive witnesses to the crimes of mankind. “Someone has to pay the price” and here the “someone” is the passive audience. However, the building-up for this climax was not sufficient and the “fourth wall” therefore, was only half broken as the audience did not for once feel threatened.

That said, it is important for lovers of this art form that groups like Nautanki Theatre make such “boycotted” marvels accessible to a global audience and give playwrights like Nagarkar their due. But it will take a more powerful performance than this to shake our existing condition. After all, we enjoy our status quo too much, don’t we?




Thursday, 29 August 2013
Indian Embrace - Review
By Carol Dance

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta
Wednesday 21 August 2013
Reviewed By Ben Oxley

"You must welcome waiting. You can only wait for what you cannot change."

(photo by Chris Lundie)

Two cultures. Two families. Together at a life-changing sacred city. In a story that from the outside is reminiscent of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the characters form a bond due to the release of their respective worries.

Set in Varanasi, India, but with Sydney on its horizon, Indian Embrace bridges the divide between culture, generation and change.

Indian Embrace stars Ambika Asthana, Neel Banerjee, Shashidhar Dandekar, James Herrington, Steven Menteith (a Westerner who has travelled extensively in India including Varanasi) and Lucy Rasheed.

Anger is stirred up in family rivalry, but then the greater disaster is remembered, which brings them back together. Perspective is the great key to understanding why, and quiet reflection is valuable in an unusual backwater. The six cast members have longings, and those that are shared in the play appear to resolve, where the unresolved seem not as important.

Shashidhar Dandekar shines as the world-weary father figure Vikram, with perhaps the best material. He generously allows other actors space to build their characters.

John as the older, distant Australian brother, shadows Menteith's own wide travels. He is believable in the combative scenes with his sister Pamela (Rasheed), while his friendship with Vikram is the strength of the play.

Pamela and Chris slowly unfold and explore their respective nirvanas, while Roopa entertains with aspirational characterisation, of a young woman bent on going to Australia, for her the exotic idyll. The short roles of Ashwin and Sanjay allow Banerjee just enough room to give well-paced vignettes to lift away from the larger drama.

Neat direction from Lenore Robertson, in an intimate space, with effective lighting from Richard Neville gave the sense of a decaying boarding house caught in between two worlds. Suspended material cloths are the screen, on which are projected the vivid hues of the mighty Ganges, perhaps the main silent role in the piece.

Carol Dance has made a fashionable subject very personal, very real. She explores how we deal with trauma, and asks are we able overcome great personal sadness and still manage to maintain relationships. The meaning of life is summed up in her lines for Vikram: "You must welcome waiting. You can only wait for what you cannot change."





Indian Embrace

By Carol Dance. Nautanki Theatre. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta (NSW). Aug 21 – 25, 2013.

Indian Embrace is a complex mixture of messages about family, friends and cross-cultural relationships. There are some moments that are very moving and some that are very funny, and some characters that are well drawn and sensitively portrayed. But because the play tries to comment on so many aspects of relationships and culture, the resolution of the many complications makes the second act a little too long and much too laboured.

The plot revolves around three estranged and very disparate Australian siblings - a trouble shooting aid worker, an ambitious corporate business woman and a stereotypical Aussie-bloke-overseas – who meet in a guest house in the busy Indian city of Varanasi. Here, an Indian father tries desperately to maintain the dignity of family and heritage whilst his daughter-in-law longs to emigrate to Australia. As the two families meet, the differences in culture, background and aspirations emerge.

The simple but effective set is enhanced by images of Varanasi that are projected on to fabric mats that hang above and behind the stage. These transport the audience into that bustling city and the busy banks of the River Ganges. In one well-directed scene, the three Australians sit with the audience as if at the Ganges, whilst John, the elder brother, sensitively describes the cremation that is being screened on the set.

Moments like this, and the short but very vivid and funny depiction of pushy vendors in a bazaar, are welcome distractions from the siblings’ arguments, some of which unnecessarily labour the differences that have already been established. Steven Menteith (John) and Lucy Rasheed (Pamela) work hard at establishing their rocky relationship, but often the tempo is neither fast enough nor strong enough to be really plausible. The less pushy character of Chris, the younger brother, played by James Herrington is a little overdone, a little too Ocker.

The Indian family, on the other hand, is sensitively and poignantly portrayed. Shashidhar Dandekar brings depth and belief to the character of Vikram, retired army officer who has turned his family home into a guest house in an effort to retain the last vestiges of a long heritage. Dandekar’s depiction of Vikram is restrained, contained, with an underlying sadness that is revealed in a very moving, well-written and beautifully timed monologue in the second act.

The character of Roopa, his rebellious daughter-in-law, is equally well-drawn, and played with charming appeal by Ambika Asthana, who is totally convincing in this role. She has an engaging stage presence backed by clear characterisation and good comedic timing.

Similar, and very professional, comedic timing is displayed by Neel Banerjee in his depiction of the stereotypical, yet totally engaging character, Sanjay, the dodgy business manager setting up Pamela’s call centre. Banerjee’s wide theatrical experience is evident in his timing, pace and the lift he brings to the production.
Director Lenore Robertson and her creative team have brought a real feeling of India to the theatre for this production, and though the play itself is somewhat over-written and the final monologue a little trite (and probably unnecessary), it was well-received and clearly appreciated by the opening night audience.

Carol Wimmer
Photographer: Chris Lundie