The Water Station
It is a 1981 play. That makes it 30 years old. But it is likely to be timeless. If human emotions remain more or less what they have been and are, the late Japanese playwright Shogo Ohta's wordless play, The Water Station, will hold into the unseen future.
Director Sankar Venkateswaran's production, staged at Prithvi last week, was impeccably in tune with the silent, slow-motion musicality of the play. During its two-hour, intermissionless duration, the actors uttered not a word; but their mask-like facial expressions spoke eloquently of man's deepest emotions--predominantly fear, horror, lust, greed and anger, but occasionally, also compassion and joy.
The stage setting was a contrast of sharp light and shadow. A steady trickle of water flowed from a tap on the left, lit by an unblinking spot, and fell into a small, circular pool sunk into a raised platform. The liquid sound of water on water stayed with us through the length of the play and for days afterwards. A ramp at the back turned a sharp corner to lead down to the platform and the tap. On the right were amorphous stacks of unidentifiable stuff, and bags, bundles and backpacks were strewn underneath the platform. Everything suggested a long, rugged journey.
Breaking all conventions, the play began before the third bell rang. While the house lights were still on and the audience still chatting, a shadowy female figure appeared at the top of the ramp and began moving down it in slow, measured steps--one foot forward, set down heel, set down sole, pause, now the other foot. Halfway down the ramp, she stopped. Lit now by a soft light, she turned slowly to look back and raised her hand to her mouth. Had she left something beloved behind? Or had she heard something that scared her?
At the water tap, her eyes fixed unwaveringly on it, she drew a red mug from her basket and held it under the trickle. For the first time since the play began, the sound of water on water was silenced. She drank thirstily from the mug, tipping her head all the way back to let the last drop run into her throat.
Other travellers came in ones and twos and groups. They came at the same pace, with the same fixed gaze, wearing costumes made of scraps and burdened with an assortment of baggage. The water tap was their destination. It offered them a pause in their journey. When they had taken from it what they wanted, they went on into the darkness, still walking in slow motion. An old woman with a large basket didn't go on. She held her hand under the stream, tasted the water, flung away her only possession, a shoe, and settled quietly into her basket to die. It was the most moving moment of the play.
A group of people stood transfixed, their mouths open in horror as their eyes followed some moving object in the sky. A woman screamed silently like the woman in Edvard Munch's The scream. Her man slapped her, then gave her a bowl of water.
The last man, older than the rest, carried the heaviest load of them all. He threw an old shoe over his shoulder, accidentally setting off jaunty music from the junk. He brushed his teeth at the tap with deadpan face, to the beat of the music. It was a potentially funny scene, but nobody laughed. We were too far gone into the dark heart of the play.
Venkateswaran had choreographed the actors' movements so perfectly, that together they created an overall rhythm for the play in which the audience too was caught. Even when they lowered themselves on their haunches, or slid onto the parapet round the pool or jumped in and out of it, their movements were controlled. It was like listening to an alap in which every note is held to yield up all its shades. And when the actors paused, they froze into postures that transformed them into paintings on the canvas of the stage.
Judging by the actors' physiognomies, they must have come from all over the country, carrying their own baggage of acting styles; but here they worked together seamlessly, bound by the altogether alien Noh aesthetic of movement and gesture.
The Water Station was an extraordinary experience. It mesmerised. It showed us exactly how far a writer with vision and a director with imagination and conviction can stretch theatre without breaking its back.
Published On : 11-12-2014