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Keniyan Theatre Company strong presence at the second International Theatre Festival of Kerala (India)

Ph D, M Ind, B Ed
To hold an international theatre festival during the Christmas holidays would probably be suicidal in the West, as most theatres are virtually closed at this time of the year, mainly when adverse weather invites itself at the party. Apparently, holidays and temperatures reaching a peak of 30 degrees at this time of the year in Kerala (India), are no problem for the State 2nd International Theatre Festival and its ten days programme running from December 20 to 29. 

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This well-attended festival this year focuses on African and Asian productions and offers a venue for social theatre. On the fringe, the "Malayalam Theatre Panorama" runs on a separate campus for amateur theatre practitioners working with limited resources.

The context for such an event is the city of Thrissur and its noisy streets (1). The venue is situated on the campus of the Sangeeth Natak Academy (Academy for Music and Drama), near the Shakthan Thampuran Palace (or Vadakkekara palace) reconstructed in the Kerala-Dutch style in 1795 by Sakthan Thampuran, the raja who ruled Kochi (Cochin)between 1790 and 1805. Opposite the campus, is the Thrissur inner stadium on the vast compounds of which a group of not less than one hundred elephants once paraded to the accompaniment of a percussion orchestra during the grand Thrissur pooram, a festival of sound and light.

With an educational and cultural development of long standing, Thrissur has recently become a familiar place for such international events. Hardly two weeks after the theatre festival, there will be a week long seminar on theatre, and later by February the Vibhyog International Film Festival will present the 5th edition of its programming. Earlier this year, in October, to mention only some of the events I have witnessed since I arrived here, the Fifth Ajayan Memorial Theatre Event presented, among other theatre plays, The Doorway, a provocative piece à la Grotowski by Mumbai actor and director Jyoti Dogra.

Whereas Kerala has a rich tradition in dance and theatre (Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Mohiniyattam, Attam Thulal, and the Theyyam ritual dance, only to mention the best known forms), a festival of contemporary theatre is a venture in itself not to speak of the challenge it might pose to its organizers. Aside from theatre specialists, audiences here might not relate too well to the discourse of a theatre alien to their culture and art forms. And even when relating to familiar social themes, there seems to be difficulties lying in the way, judging from a review that just came out, and which sees chaos where there is art(2). It is with this in mind that I have approached the Kenyan Theatre Company’s work, Githaa (“The Time has come”) (3), one of the first ones just seen at the festival.

Githaa, directed by Keith Pearson, was brilliantly interpreted by actors who were at all time juste in the way they spoke (alternatively in Swahili and English) and moved. The rhythm was sustained throughout the 80 minute realist play. Language segmentations showed up at times and could have reminded one of the distant, though still relevant Becket. Bodies were conspicuous for their presence and spoke by themselves, in sequences intermingled with the percussion music and the singing. The overall impression was one of generosity and of gorgeous acting punctuated with humour and vivid repartees. The play, bathed in natural movement, included at one point a spontaneous combination of subtle pelvis shifts, soft leg and arm gestures, and glides.

The whole work went on with simplicity and ease; no pretension from these generous actors. The presence was powerful and the direction convincing, leaving ample room for the actors to move freely between text, movement and singing. I have in mind a similar treatment of African culture in Peter Brook’s The Costume, presented at the Festival des Amériques, Montreal, 2002, and its rigid bodies as compared, in my opinion, to Pearson’s more humble though more fluid approach in the integration of singing, music, and movement to the acting.

The eight actors’ production was supported by sober lighting that blended perfectly well with the environment of the Thrissur open theatre, an effect most probably matching the context of presentation in Kenya. Images of the play were transmitted on wide screens scattered on the campus of the Sangeeth Natak Academy, the festival organizer and official sponsor.

The company’s second program on the next evening, Sauti Kimya (“Sounds in Silence”) was not below our expectation. The same fluidity linked movement, speech and singing. The rhythm was different, more introspective, and maybe more difficult to sustain because there were less rebondissements in this production than there were in Githaa. In one short duet, the movement was interpreted à l'unisson by trained dancers. In the succession of images, one will perhaps remember one actor taking snapshots of herself in the play (good old "distanciation"), or another one telling members of his audience that he does not intend to convince them. At this point, however, the play became reflective in a sense, as it addressed the discourse of the theatre and, from this viewpoint, asserted its basis in contemporary theatre.

As one was searching the program notes for the cast and the credits, the information was simply not there. Instead, the actors were introduced one by one at the end of the performance as they were presented with garlands and medals by no one else than Kalamandalam Gopi, the Kathakali master and this year’s Padma Sree award-winner (4). It took this end game to generate some fainted applause from the audience that had gathered in the newly inaugurated open theatre. That let me pensive.

In the tight but unencumbered schedule of the festival, other related activities such as concerts, conferences, workshops, videos and film projections are taking place smoothly between the performances. One of those films featured the life and work of Pina Bausch.

Caine Mutiny Court Martial, based on a novel by Herman Wonk, directed by Naseeruddin Shah Sahyante Makan (India), was featured on the opening day of the festival, followed on the next day by Every Year, Every Day I Am Walking (Swahili and English), from director Mark Fleishman (South Africa). Also part of the early festival programming: an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, by South African Christopher Weare; Sahyante Makan, directed by Sankar Venkitaraman (India), in collaboration with Japanese actress Mikhari. Works on schedule for the upcoming days are, among others: Hotel Mohenjodaro (in Urdu), by Pakistani director Shahid Nadeem; The Book of Life (Malayalam), by Suveeran (Kerala). The festival will conclude with an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, by Manipur Director Ratan Thiyam; and Spinal Cord (Malayalam), inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, directed by Deepan Sivaraman (Kerala) who studied at the Wimbledon College of Art, London, and whose work was presented at Avignon (2007) and at Prithvi, the well-known festival based in Mumbai.

Thrissur, 25 December 2009


(1) Cf previous article in this column: Crossing Over to the Malayalee Culture (2007).

(2) “A Glimpse Into Live in the Ghettos of Kenya; About 60 per cent of the population lives in ghettos”. The Hindu, Kerala ed. 24 Dec. 2009.

(3) The Theatre Company (Kenya). Direction: Keith Pearson. With: Nina Ogot, Rogers Otieno, Isaac Anyuanga, Ruth Maingi, Doreen Mianjuma, Joni Githui, Melvin Alysa, Lydia Nyambura, and Pharez Waffumbwa. Lighting: Keith Pearson.

(4) One of the highest distinctions conferred by the Indian government to artists and other personalities.

* Sahayande Makan by Sankar Venkateswaran. With Japanese actress Mikhari.
Image: The International Theatre Festival of Kerala

** Githaa, by the Kenya Theatre Company
Image: The International Theatre Festival of Kerala Githaa, by the Kenya Theatre Company

*** Member of the Kenya Theatre Company demonstrating percussion instruments.
Image: The International Theatre Festival of Kerala

**** Sahayande Makan (Ibid). With the use of fire and natural elements. Open theatre (Thrissur).
Image: The International Theatre Festival of Kerala

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By Richard Tremblay

Richard Tremblay is a choregrapher and lives in Montreal. 

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