<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 146 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 19, 2004

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A Play Within A Play (Within A Play)
Salahdin Imam

One member of our party, the International Civil Servant, who is generally queasy about modern cultural experiments anyway, was skeptical from the first. As we entered the magnificent ISD (International School of Dhaka) auditorium, he lobbied furiously that we should sit close to the exits in case a strategic retreat became necessary. The rest of us, shepherded by yours truly, were quietly confident that so renowned a playwright as Alan Ayckbourn (not that any of us had more than a vague idea of the dramatic work for which he had earned the aforesaid renown) combined with the talents of the always capable Dhaka Stage company, made for a formula guaranteed to serve up a stylish comedy. This feeling was reinforced when I noticed in the programme that the playwright had actually been knighted, presumably by a monarch grateful for many a successful evening in his care.

Once the curtain was raised however, and despite a sprightly opening scene, the play took on little by little, and really by excruciatingly small degrees, such a deathly torpor that it could never be shaken off to the end. The plot revolved around as standard a cliché as has ever been proposed: the trials and tribulations of an amateur dramatic company putting on a performance (in this case, The Beggar's Opera by John Gay), a classic play-within-a-play setup, but this time with all the potential ironies eliminated with suspicious thoroughness. Attempts at comedy were dire and, truth to tell, hardly ever attempted. On the contrary all we got were increasingly tedious slice of life representations, with occasional melodramatic stage business thrown in. All dialogue conventions seemed to have been overturned and, far from "heightened speech", took the form of relentlessly ordinary conversation, most memorably in the scene in which Guy Jones is asked to tea at the Director's house and the exchanges stay stuck for long periods at the precise level of "Please pass the sugar." "Here you are" "Thanks"

Yes, it was clear that we were in the icy grip of a fully fledged Anti-play. Not having encountered such a creature before, I discovered, along with a whole room full of more or less horrified beholders, that this apparently meant a play in which there was no actual development of character or idea, no change of pace but only a steady trundling along. Nor was there an overall shape; far from there being a conventional arc of a story-line, even the occasional whiffs of Beckett-ian absurdity were quickly snuffed out. A completely unrelated sub-plot, involving the possible sale of a plot of land, meandered in and out through the play's main action before petering out without any resolution. Much as in real life you will say, but that is not what one usually goes to the theatre for.

Meanwhile the real drama was taking place in the front row of the theatre where we had with foolhardy daring plumped ourselves, all six of us. The whispering had started early and as scene after scene went down like a series of lead balloons my group showed signs of growing merriment, directed, as I was only too aware, at me. I, of course, pretended I wasn't there and carefully avoided catching the eye of our ICS friend who for his part made every attempt so to do, all the better to convey its triumphant gleam. As we wearily made it to the interval all hell broke loose and we compared notes in a daze. Our unanimous opinion was that we were steaming towards a titanic disaster, or perhaps had already hit the iceberg and it was all over bar the collective drowning. An urgent discussion broke out about whether we would survive another hour and a half of this tedium (it having been helpfully specified in an announcement at the beginning that the interval would be exactly halfway through the performance).

Ultimately we stayed on till the end largely out of respect for the work of the Dhaka Stage company, because the glaring paradox in all this was that the performance itself was truly top-rate. Much fine energetic acting, with Sally Elliott and Kip Watkins in particular, fully inhabiting their parts. Deft direction of a large cast, and a technically complex production involving numerous scene changes, music, dancing, not to mention elaborate costumes and props. Yet another convention seemed to have been overturned. Whereas the usual joke in these situations is that an amateur dramatic company cheerfully mangles a classic play (as indeed the Pendon Society is shown doing with the Beggar's Opera) in this case Alan Ayckbourn sees to it that an extremely demanding performance is wasted on his very slight text.

By the end it was clear that most of the audience was also caught up in the spirit of silent rebellion. One gentleman behind us started some loud mock-snoring. The laughs one heard occasionally were clearly forced. Applause was perfunctory and there was no hint of a curtain call despite the technical merits of the performance.

We dashed out of the premises with relief and went on to a restaurant for the après-theatre but for the rest of the evening the talk was almost exclusively about the depressing experience we had just been through. Every defect of the play was analysed, among them its interminable length, its flatness, its emptiness. Torrents of genial abuse were poured on the head of the playwright with many a devout wish that he be stripped of his knighthood. The ICS person made it very clear that he would be collecting from me for some considerable time to come. Again and again the topic came up of the curious disconnect between the excellence of the performance by Dhaka Stage and the embarrassing weakness of the ultimate output. This then perhaps explains why we parted agreeing to file the episode under the title of "Musical Tragedy".

I strolled up to my flat mulling over the events of the evening and trying to pinpoint the source of the nagging sense that I was missing something. I had just put my key in the lock when it hit me. No, the most perfect, most precise title (otherwise inexplicable), which summarized the experience of the evening, could only be "A Chorus of Disapproval" !

Head reeling I began working out the implications. There had been a play within a play (within a play). We had all been actors in Alan Ayckbourn's greater play, jerked around like puppets on a string, the smug ICS person perhaps most of all, an exactly imagined stock character. The playwright had been the Emperor and I felt at this moment like the boy who saw though his no-clothes trick.

Every element of the trick now fell into place: the sheer length of the piece, carefully advertised in advance so as to induce a sinking feeling in the stomach, the frequent hints that the auditorium's seating area was also part of the performance space, and above all the expertly controlled dullness of the drama. All designed, as in a reverse art-form, to evoke just the reaction of outrage and dissatisfaction that we had so amply displayed. I was stunned at the level of deep manipulation that had been pulled off. How well the playwright had known us, how well he had penetrated our defenses at the very moment when we felt ourselves most invulnerable, turned us inside out when we were at our most contemptuous.

For Services to Post-modern Practical Jokes on a Grand Scale: Rise Again Sir Alan.




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