Sisir Kumar Das’s “Socrates”, presented by Circle Theatre at Bhartendu Natya Utsav in New Delhi this past week in Hindi translation by Manish Manoja and Bapi Bose, is a severe indictment of the despotic regimes which use religion and state machinery to silence dissenting voices. From beginning to end the production maintains the complex rhythm created by the theatrical brilliance of the director and powerful performances of the actors.
The struggle of the people of Manipur against the continued imposition of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) embodied in the 11-year long fast by Irom Sharmila is one of the main highlights.
As the title suggests, the play is about Socrates and his trial. His opponents charge him with misguiding the youth and refusing to accept the God recognised by the state. His enemies have grabbed the state apparatus and are using it to crush him because they perceive his ideology as dangerous for their survival. The period is 399 BC. The Athenian state is ruled by a clique led by Saturos, a despot, who destroyed the democratic values of Athenian society. An expert in the use of multi-media in the theatre, director Bapi Bose relates the trial of Socrates to our times.
His aim is not merely to reveal Socrates’ trial, but to present it in the context of human history which has been ravaged by despotic forces at different points of time, and humanity’s united resistance against such fascist forces. Thus the director gives the play a universal dimension, using multi-media devices. The play opens with the torture chamber in which suspects, the collaborators with Socrates, are being subjected to inhuman torture. The scene presents a terrifying image of state violence.
The second half presents Socrates’ trial. The sham character of the court is reflected in the way the voices of reason, justice and truth are drowned in the cacophony of demagogic rhetoric by the lawyers hired by the state. The offstage voices create the illusion of a trial court with a large hired crowd demanding the death penalty for Socrates. The farcical nature of the trial court is also revealed through a huge swing. The chief-justice frequently uses it in a rather playful mood. Socrates occupies his place near a vVedi like pattern, an altar. There is another motif which suggests the circle of time, the march of history — these are metaphorical statements to reveal that there have been martyrs in the cause of democracy and freedom.
Bose is an innovative stage designer who is inspired by the Jatra stage and recreates it to be in tune with the modern concept of stagecraft. Free from the clutter of projecting the period details of Athenian society of 400 BC, he captures the classic elegance by simply erecting two pillars wrapped in white drapery on either side of the acting area. Similarly, he reinforces the leitmotif of the play through the music score drawn from various western sources, imparting dynamic undercurrents to the production.
An expert in scenography and illumination, Bose shows his innovative style in projecting film clippings on the screen upstage to form a powerful video collage. The video projection is done between the transitions of scenes and brings home the message about the stark contemporary realities. We watch clippings of the National Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, suspending all the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, putting opposition leaders behind bars; we see the demolition of the Babri Masjid by the Right-wing Hindutva hordes. By highlighting these episodes as assaults on democracy, the director warns us that fascistic forces must be combated to save democracy.
There are heart-wrenching images of the massacre of minorities in Modi’s Gujarat. We watch the struggle of the people of Manipur against the continued imposition of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) embodied in the 11-year long fast by Irom Sharmila. Video footage of the uprisings of people against despotic rulers in the Arab world indicate the democratic upsurge.
The play gains from the brilliance of the dedicated cast. Vidya Bhushan Kulshreshtha plays Socrates with rare subtlety. His Socrates himself goes to his enemies who are unable to arrest him. He refuses to accept their humiliating proposals as an alternative to the death penalty. All through his trial he pleads his case logically, rationally, displaying complete faith in his convictions and the relevance of his message to humanity.
Khitij Kokas as Plato who is shattered to hear the death sentence awarded to his dear master, Socrates. Dhruv Kumar Singh in two roles — Saturos, an arch-opponent of Socrates and Chief-Justice, Subhash Chandra Tyagi as a Socrates-4 and Crito and Mir Sarwar as Theramenes impress the audience with their mature histrionic talents.