A little bit of history just might have been created on the capital a few days ago. I have been to see Baghdad Burning (in Hindi) at the National School of Drama last weekend and it was (to my knowledge) the first time in this country that someone put together a dramatic production on stage, based on the text of a blog.
I went to see the play because I knew that, whether or not the production was any good, this would mark a historic moment in the cultural landscape. Blogs are producing poetry, stories, essays, perhaps serialized novels. Blogs are producing journalism. For all I know, blogs are also depositories of scripts and screenplays, and if that is the case, they may well have been produced and staged already. But so far, (and correct me if I'm wrong) blogs were not yet being interpreted and adapted specially for the screen.
Baghdad Burning is a fine blog that treads a wonderful line between experiential journalism, write-it-as-I-see-it posts and storytelling. There is inherent drama in an unfolding war and the inevitable tragedy for the citizens who neither propagated it nor supported it and had nowhere to run when it came to their homes. That it calls for a wider audience goes without saying and taking it to the stage, where non-bloggers also have a chance to experience the narrative is a great initiative.
As for Baghdad Burning, the play... I have two reasons for reviewing it here. One, maybe Riverbend might want to know how it turned out (if she has access to the net). Two, I'm hoping that somebody passes on this feedback to the team that put it together. Not because it is a terrible play, but because it has fine moments of intensity and a sorrow so delicate, it was beautiful to watch. I wish the team well, congratulate them and want them to fine-tune it so that the plays gets better reviews and is invited everywhere.
The play opens to the forward left corner of the stage. A laptop, a dim light, a girl sitting with her back to the audience. She begins to read – in English. And right there was stumbling block number one.
I am not a great fan of mixed-language plays. If the characters themselves use a mix of tongues, that's okay. But to have the narrator speak in English and the rest of the dialogue in Hindi does not make a lot of sense. I rather like the fact that it was in Hindi. That brought an immediacy and urgency to the natural poignancy of the text. You could so easily substitute 'Baghdad' for 'Delhi' and the story would be this – the words in the mouths of the players would be this. In just such an idiom, just such a turn of phrase.
Unfortunately, some bits of the text were read out as they were. In a strongly accented English. [Aside: I confess that I'm squirming a bit in my chair while saying this, for I don't want to be accused of diction snobbery] Badly spoken (annunciated) English, on stage, is… is… well, unless it is deliberate and serves to embellish a character, it is just an annoyance. In this case, the diction was making the viewers work hard too hard at deciphering the text. The narrator's voice, then, ceased to work as an effective tool.
I won't bother with a synopsis of what you see on stage – it is complex and should be allowed to stay that way. Also, the structure of the narrative is loose, sequential, just like a series of blog posts, and that too should be treated as legit.
One of the early sequences is that of a family sleeping, or trying to, with war all around. The girl and boy begin identifying the make of the craft, the weapons, the targeted areas, through the sounds of bombing and shelling. It is a game and a sad one. The bad news begins to filter in at the same time. Missing friends, dead phones, the raids at night.
Some posts have been chosen for their telling commentary and some of their stories. The one where a young girl comes seeking legal help, looking for her arrested/missing family. The one where the narrator's aunt comes visiting from London, laden with gifts, only to be witness to a terrifying surprise visit by soldiers (or militias?). The one where an old woman shows around a visitor in a bombed-out place that has become famous for its 'designs' – people hurled with great force against the walls and their death shapes left imprinted there – almost a tourist attraction (my favourite portion). The one where the narrator's home becomes host to a long line of buckets since it is the only one with a thin trickle of water. All these are well-done.
There are parts of the play that are more like short skits which hold together various sequences, and their execution is uneven. There is one sequence where all the various puppet presidents are introduced, which is quite well done. There are sequences more figuratively interpreted than actual (though I cannot recall each post on the blog). One where the central character's laptop is taken away by armed mullah-type men, representing the militias I assume, for the clampdown on women is severe and is represented through the taking away of toolkits, certificates, schoolbags, cracking of whips, and their mummification in white bedsheets.
There is another sequence which is meant to represent the vulgarity of the 'liberation' of Iraq – a man dressed in a silver shirt and a shiny silver pant rides up on stage on a motorbike, with a woman dressed in a skimpy top and a shiny silver skirt riding pillion. They proceed to dance – terribly – and mouth George W Bush's meaningless words about 'liberation'. The sequence goes on way too long to hold audience interest, especially since the dancing is bad and the music loud and garish. In fact, I was mildly uncomfortable with this representation because it seemed to take potshots at American culture: suggesting, perhaps, that dissonance and a bling-bling aesthetic was all there was to it, and that this alien culture would now invade Iraq, along with the soldiers and tanks. Even if Riverbend had expressed concerns about cultural invasion, there are other ways of staging the idea; this was a simplistic, reductive technique that borders on insensitive. If only this was cut out, or cut back at least, the play would be vastly improved, especially considering that it appears early on.
One of the things I like best about the play is the minimalism of the sets. Very few props. The black box method was in evidence, except that this play used benches and used them to good effect, using the simple lines to create flexibility and speed that was essential to a play like this, which moves time and location so often.
I also liked that, despite a smallish cast, many stories could be told. Many of the actors were playing several different characters, which threw me a bit at first. I'd begin to wonder whether it was the same character, reappearing in a new costume. But once this happened a few time, I saw the pattern and even began to enjoy it. Riverbend herself seemed to be constant, though not in a direct way. Her costume didn't change, thankfully, which left constancy and flow to the sequences.
The costumes weren't bad, though the scope for improvement is vast considering that the right clothes can always be borrowed. The men playing mullahs were dressed in long black robes that appeared to have been made for Christian priests in some other play. However, this was a student production and it was obvious that budgets were small.
I liked the music too – the local music, that is. One song was especially catchy; the one with 'umrika umrika' in the chorus. (The silver-shirt-and-skirt sequence was an unfortunate auditory assault.)
I'm afraid I don't have the brochure now so, don't know the names of the cast or crew. But it was a good show, all said and done: a brave effort with some rough edges; nothing that can't be fixed. What is important is that the play retained the quality of humour tinged with bitterness, that it sought a voice of despair combined with spirit, along with fear, pathos and anger. I do hope that it will be staged again in a better, improved form. And I hope that, wherever she is, Riverbend and her family are safe.