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Theatre Review: The Clay Cart

The Clay Cart is a new work by Prayas Theatre written by a man called Sudrāka over a thousand years ago in India and adapted for the stage now by Shekinah Jacob. 

It is a play within a play which consists of the action cutting between a contemporary theatre group in New Zealand rehearsing that original Sanskrit story, and scenes from the original play being acted out by the group. So almost all of the actors have dual roles – firstly, playing ‘actors’ in the present day scenes, and then playing ‘characters’ in the original play. 

So, in the ancient story, a nobleman Charudatta (Rishabh Kapoor) has fallen on hard times, but is sustained by his love of a wealthy courtesan Vansantasena (Ruchika Tandon). As with any dramatic love story, there is a complication. Vansantasena is desired by a rather ruthless courtier Sansthanaka (Jehangir Homavazir) who will literally stop at nothing to get his own way, and manipulates everyone around him while pompously saying he is the brother in law of the King, and therefore should get everything he wishes. 

Sansthanaka is so good at this manipulation he soon has Charudatta imprisoned on charges of murder despite his innocence. I won’t spoil the ending, but rest assured there are many subplots and characters that weave in and out of the story. There are divided loyalties, intrigue, theft, and the kind of hilarious mayhem which all good dramas possess. 

In the modern part of the narrative, there is tension between cast members and debate over whether this 1,500 year old play is relevant to modern Indian communities and the country’s aspirations in the 21st Century. Some think so, others don’t. The strongest proponent of choosing a different play, namely his own, is an ‘actor’ called Sandeep. His uncle is the show’s sponsor, and Sandeep is egotistical, bullying and manipulative. He is played by the same actor, Jehangir Homavazir, who is the evil Sansthanaka in the ancient play.

Yes, the symbolism is rather obvious, but quite clever. 

Each actor is playing two characters in different time periods who mirror one another in personality, values, and destiny. For example, in the case of actor Rishabh Kapoor, his contemporary character Dutta is facing what seems to be an unfair legal process just as in the past, Charudutta is facing prosecution himself. 

As both stories unfold, the relevance and universality of an ancient story which is about love and kindness as well as jealousy, deceit and violence is palpable. Clearly, human nature has not changed across the centuries or cultures. 

The first thing to observe about this play is its beautifully lyrical language and performance styles. This was particularly true in the script for the original story which is dripping with poetic symbolism and juxtaposes nicely with the contemporary language.

Kapoor epitomised this so well. As Dutta in the contemporary scenes he was a modern man not afraid to push for his cause and occasionally show anger yet there was still a poetic rhythm to his speech even though it felt modern. As Charudatta he transformed into the living embodiment of a pious lover and his language and demeanour was full of the symbolism and cadence which typifies those ancient stories. In many ways that might seem anachronistic in this modern world, but Kapoor delivered this with such faithfulness, simplicity and charm that it felt perfectly natural and beautiful in this modern age.

The entire cast alongside him clearly understood the value of this and the need for different styles of performance for each of the time periods. The transitions between these periods were so well done. Every cast member brought an energy and dynamism to their performance. 

Interspersed in the story were some beautiful dance moments, one or two reminiscent of a Bollywood film in energy and humour, while others were more evocative of an older time with a charming sweetness.  

The production was also clearly political and not afraid to push buttons. Parallels to sexism, greed, and injustice were made in both time periods, and there was also a reference to a recent case of sexual harassment by a leading wealthy patron of the arts here in New Zealand. The play did not shy away from historical inequalities, and yet it never seemed preachy because these moments were delivered in a way that was heartfelt and honest.  

All of this reinforced the basic premise established right in the opening scenes. An ancient story about human society and all our foibles is still relevant today. 

In terms of negatives, there weren’t many. One or two scenes seemed a little rushed. This meant occasionally the sharpness of the script was blunted by the energetic action.

I would have liked to have seen a little more vibrancy in terms of staging and costumes. This can of course be a budget issue for productions, but the show could have made more use of the richness of colour and texture in fabrics and the vitality of Indian culture.

But these are minor things. 

The play itself with its charm, humour and drama combined with the powerful and visceral performances created a wonderful sense of the human spirit and our many challenges. It was very well crafted, and even though The Clay Cart is an Indian story set in Indian communities, it would be entirely watchable and relevant no matter what language or culture it was set in. For that I salute Prayas for creating a classy piece of theatre. 

Photo credit – John Rata

THE CLAY CART

29 November – 8 December 2023

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