by Rituparna Mahapatra
Dubai known for its vibrant cultural ambience was recently buzzing with the news of the iconic Prithvi Theatres coming to the city. Thus, with it came the frenzy to book tickets, for the repertoire of plays that would be matter for discussion at many following summer evenings.
This five day theatre festival brought by Raging Tigers was a landmark event in the social circle of Dubai. The theatre personalities that performed included stalwarts of Indian cinema and theatre such as Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, and Shabana Azmi. The plays chosen for the festival had been handpicked, said Kunal Kapoor, trustee of Prithvi Theatres. The festival opened with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah in the acclaimed Jerome Kitty’s ‘Dear Liar’ adapted for the stage by the legendary Satyadev Dubey. The other plays selected were ‘White Lily and Knight Rider’, a play about the various dimensions of a male-female relationship in the digital world; ‘ Nothing Like Lear’ based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, the classic ‘Glass Menagerie’ and finally the immensely popular Urdu play ‘Kaifi Aur Main’, Shaukat Azmi’s memoirs on her husband poet Kaifi Azmi.
The play ‘Dear Liar’ particularly struck a chord, since the plot was on the dramatization of correspondence over a forty -year period between George Bernard Shaw and the celebrated actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, which began in late-Victorian London in 1899 and ended with the death of “Mrs Campbell” in France in 1940. A relationship intense and verbal that survived time and war and kept two immensely bright individuals bonded by letters. Only by rhetoric precisely. Writing a letter was an art, no less than art itself…now almost extinct.
The witty ‘vegetarian’ George Bernard Shaw claims to be violently in love with Mrs Campbell, who he lovingly addresses as Stella, and she in turn calls him Joey; someone who makes her laugh.
The letters are dated and speak a story about happenings in their lives clearly portraying the passage of time. There are clever witticisms from both of them and the sombre mood depicted as well, when Joey talks about his mother’s funeral and Stella informs him about the death of her son Beo in the war.
There is nothing mushy about their story. The letters reveal and bring forth our believe in love; the kind, that encompasses time and beauty, and makes us accept this one kind of love between Joey and Stella and not look at it as sin, since both were married. The relationship is almost platonic with no reference to sex; apart from a couple of adolescent references to “your bed” and “my bed’’ there is none in the correspondence. “We are like lust-less lions at play,” complains Mrs Campbell, before taking a real ‘wealthy ‘lover right under Shaw’s nose’. But the letters dated after that event from Joey to Stella tell that she is still loved and wanted as much in spite of her ‘cheating’, and their bond remains strong, with a little crack here and there.
The letters were discovered after the death of Mrs Campbell, she had hid them under her bed, and says ‘’there you are Joey finally under my bed”! The words in these letters do not threaten the married status of Joey, though at times there is mention of his wife Charlotte with a chuckle. The letters keep track of all that has happened in the lives of both of them from the war, to the accident of Mrs Campbell, and her travelling to France, being left with no work and to fend for herself and her pet Moonbeam. The words that are beautifully crafted and phrased with precision take you back and forth in time and toss you in an ocean of emotions. There is material enough for dramatic tension; Mrs Campbell is going through a rough phase, both her beauty and career crumbling, she lives in poverty after her husband abandons her. A wealthy Shaw is aware but refuses to help. And the pair merely laugh through it raising witty innuendos at each other. Did they really love each other? Or did they despise each other? Or was Mrs Campbell just amused by the attention or was Shaw a weak reticent character, too afraid to stand up for his lady love? All these questions remain unanswered…Mrs Campbell remains a woman of grit and unappeasable spirit and lives a life on her terms till the end, Shaw’s celebrity does not daunt her till the end. She laughs at him and herself. Shaw admits he is the parasite, the weaker one in their relationship, he has been drawing out strength from her always, and sucking out every bit of her exuberance, and in return gave her nothing. As they grow old and ailing, it is she who proves to be the strong one, despite divorce, loss of her son, poverty and sickness. Their sweet and sour love story through their letters tells a humane tale of longing and bonding at the same time. Forty years held together through letters…magical indeed, for today’s audience.
As the play ends, and you walk out you reminiscence about the lost letters and people in your life, the letters that had brought people close to you; probably not there anymore now, neither them nor the letters. And you think when was the last time you wrote a letter?