"George Bernard Shaw said, ‘All I’m asking for is to have my own way in everything. Why should anyone argue with me?’" laughs actor Naseeruddin Shah, seated across us on a comfy sofa at his Bandra apartment. "Shaw would say the strangest things in the most rational manner," he adds, eyes lighting up at the mention of one of his favourite playwrights. Motley Theatre Group’s play, Dear Liar, an enactment of letters adapted from the correspondence between Shaw and Mrs Patrick Campbell, recreates their intriguing relationship.
Nasseruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah at their Bandra apartment. “The humour is sparkling. The characters keep coming out of character to narrate the story. These lines were written in the early 20th century but the ideas seem avant-garde even today,” says Ratna Pathak-Shah. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Written by Jerome Kilty and directed by the late Satyadev Dubey, the play is improvised and enacted by Shah and his partner on and off stage, Ratna Pathak-Shah. First performed in 2004, the play is back in the city after a gap of two years. "It’s Dubeyji’s parting gift to us. We love and treasure it. It’s a bit strenuous to perform because of the amount of speaking, so we give it a rest every now and then," shares Shah.
Dressed in a casual shirt and cream trousers, Shah tells us that the English used in the play is one which no one understands these days. "Dubeyji used to tell us that people don’t understand any language that’s well spoken anymore. He said you must make a tremendous effort to communicate the meaning of these lines. The audience is not used to this kind of sentence structures anymore," he explains. "That is why, we have to ensure that the audience is with us otherwise, they can find it dreary because it’s basically just conversation. However, we didn’t want to modify the language for Dear Liar. I didn’t have any doubt at all when we were first doing it. I felt that if I could understand it, anyone can. It’s the language that has to be spoken with conviction," he adds, taking a break to sip from a glass of water, checking on the downpour from a large window behind him.
A scene from Dear Liar performed in 2004
Say it like Shaw
"Shaw loved words. Even his descriptions of characters and places would take the whole page. No other playwright does that. He said, ‘I write in the same way as the cow gives milk. If I didn’t write, I would die,’" Shah laughs, adding that it’s Shaw’s world view that makes him stand out. "Dubeyji would say, ‘Kya tum Shakespeare-Shakespeare karte rehte ho. Ye padho.’ He said Shaw never writes a story just about a boy and girl falling in love and the difficulties they face. Read between the lines and you’ll see many layers. Shaw has a worldview and Shakespeare doesn’t. Shakespeare is not acclaimed as the greatest playwright for nothing. But it’s not an incisive portrayal of anything. Othello is not a profound portrayal of a black man in a white society. It’s almost a racist play. Shaw’s greatness is his wider vision. If he wrote a play about war, it’s not about the glory of war but about the horrors. Unlike Macbeth, which is about war but glorifies it," he asserts.
A scene from a performance two years ago
Pathak-Shah, who is also a fan of the writer, adds, "The way he juxtaposes ideas is fantastic. He creates a genuine debate on stage and argues both sides vociferously; particularly in the man-woman relationship, he strips it down, taking all the romanticism out and yet, manages to communicate the essence in the most entertaining way."
Playing Patrick Campbell
Opinionated and articulate, Pathak-Shah is almost as vivacious as the character she plays. "Shaw called her Stella and she called him Joey the clown. She could get away with calling him that. I’m sure he was a formidable opponent to summon whose leg you couldn’t pull easily," she laughs. "She was confident and the bigger star when they first met, and was already at the peak of her career. She was one of the few actress managers at that time. The failing of a person like this is poignant. She wasn’t aware of the tragedy, she was too bombastic to notice what a pathetic figure she cut. I didn’t understand her at all when we first did the play," she adds.
Down memory lane
The version of the play you’ll see this weekend may be different from the one performed in the early days. "Initially, when we did the play, our son Imaad, who was very young then, told us that he didn’t like to see us quarrel on stage," Shah says, with an amused look on his face. "This made us realise we were arguing far too much. Another friend pointed it out as well, that these two characters were evolved minds and not teenagers, so, why so much quarrelling? We managed to tone that down and discover more dimensions to the characters," he reveals.
"I’m still wearing the costume that Mr and Mrs Kendall (Sanjana Kapoor’s maternal grandparents) gave me. We saw their production. I met them at Shashi saab’s house. We told them we were doing Dear Liar. Mr (Geoffrey) Kendall gave me his costume and Mrs (Jennifer) Kendall gave Ratna hers. I’m still using it, including the suspenders, which haven’t lost their elasticity. It was nice sturdy tweed, which seems like it will last forever. Mrs Kendall’s costume was too small she was so petite. It’s sad they didn’t see us perform," Shah says, leaning back slightly, his gaze distant.
On: July 8, 7.30 pm
At: St Andrews Auditorium, St Domnic road, Bandra (W).
Naseeruddin Shah's theatre group Motley revived George Bernard Shaw's war satire Arms And The Man at Prithvi Theatre's Children's Festival in 2011 (Read more)
The same year, Naseeruddin Shah paid tribute to George Bernard Shaw in the three-piece play By the author (Read more)