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Journeys In The Mind

Wednesday, October 17, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

Novelists filmmakers have wrung mystery and romance with the idea of strangers in a train; Yasmina Reza uses it to put a writer and a fan in close proximity in a train compartment in The Unexpected Man, both travelling from Paris to Frankfurt.

Two of Reza’s plays have been performed in Mumbai successfully—Art and Gods Of Carnage; she writes in French, and Christopher Hampton has translated her plays, which have made them accessible internationally. She insists, however, that not a word be changed in her script, which makes adaptation impossible. One can only imagine how much better The Unexpected Man could work in its Mumbai production, if it could have been adapted to an Indian context.

Red Earth Stories is a new group, founded by Sadiya Siddiqui and Padma Damodaran; they chose  two-hander for obvious reasons—lower budget, ease of travel and so on. This 1995 play by Reza is lightweight trying to be profound, and in an early show had some teething problems. Once the actors get more comfortable with their parts, they would project the emotional undertones and subtle humour of the play better.

Padma Damodaran directs and acts in the play as Martha, a woman with tragic memories, who has found echoes of her mental turmoul in the work of the writer Paul Parsky (Naved Aslam). Much to her surprise, she finds herself in a train with him.  For most of the play, the two characters step away from the train seat and address the audience with what’s on their mind, also wondering about the other, while they are at it.

Martha has a copy of Parsky’s book, The Unexpected Man in her bag, and wonders whether to take it out and read; and what the writer would think if she did.  She keeps restraining herself from initiating a conversation with him, fearing a snub, but talks to him in her head, about what his books have meant to her.

Parsky is caught up in how own troubles—his daughter is involved with a much older man, he has been told he has been repeating himself in his books. When he does notice her, it is to wonder why she is not reading, and then, to imagine what kind of a life she has.

The play meanders along, and the two actors try very hard to make it come alive, which it does towards the end, which is predictable, but pleasing all the same.

The set design reflecting a train coach is well-designed by Prasad Walavalkar; the actors move it around, so that the audience gets a different perspective so to say; the costumes are elegant, the sound design indicative of a train’s movement, but not intrusive, and the lighting suitably low-key.  It’s a tastefully done production, and with some polishing, it has the potential to shine.

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