» A three-play festival of international solo acts, by British actor Pip Utton and South African Jailoshini Naidoo, travelled to Mumbai, with the former playing Churchill and Hitler, and the latter in a play called At the Edge about South African Indians and their issues of identity and alienation.

Going alone on stage is a challenge for any actor, trying to grab, and hold the attention of the audience for over an hour, hoping they don’t get bored, God forbid, if a line is forgotten, there’s nobody to help cover up. And because it is so frightening and thrilling, for actors who attempt it, the high is stronger than any narcotic. For the playwright and director, it is a test of their skills — can they cut the fat off a script and present the essence of an idea, using just the actor’s voice and body to convey it?

Solo act: Naseeruddin Shah stunned the audience with his masterly interpretation of Samuel Becket’s First Love, about a man who is reluctant to be tied down

There have been some memorable one-actors on the Mumbai stage in the recent past. Ira Dubey’s 9 Parts of Desire (discussed in an earlier column) is a fine example of the power of one. Manoj Shah decided to explore this tough format and recently did two solo actor plays in Gujarati — Karl Marx in Kalbadevi with Satchit Puranik and Hun Chandrakant Bakshi, with Pratik Gandhi. The first written by Uttam Gada is an imagined piece on what would happen if the spirit of Marx visited the hub of capitalism in Mumbai’s Kalbadevi. The second, written by Shishir Ramavat is about the well-known Gujarati writer, who lived and wrote on his own terms. Surprisingly, Gujarati audiences, habituated to family dramas, were willing to give these two a fair chance.

Shabana Azmi has been performing Girish Karnad’s Broken Images (directed by Alyque Padamsee) solo, the show made more difficult by her having to coordinate with her own pre-recorded monologue on a TV monitor.

Last year, Naseeruddin Shah stunned the audience with his masterly interpretation of Samuel Becket’s First Love, about a man who is reluctant to be tied down. He doesn’t mind living with, and off a woman, but flees with it, looking like he might be burdened with responsibility. He had to make the misogynistic character likeable and sympathetic in this darkly comic yet overwhelmingly melancholic piece. It’s not something a lesser actor would dare to do.

Performing solo on stage is a tradition in folk forms — particularly dramatic enactment of stories from the epics. In contemporary theatre, without the easy props of familiarity and the support of music and dance, the monologue has created its own place. And this does include stand-up comedy in which the performer is almost always alone on stage.

There have been several solo acts in Mumbai theatre — apart from collections of monologues from Going Solo, Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, Ji, Jaisi Aapki Marzi, Saat Tari Ekvees and Chha Choku Chauvees, several actors have done solo plays in Mumbai, and successfully too — Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal (Shirley Valentine), Sarita Joshi (Sakubai), Ashish Vidyarthi (Dayashankar Ki Diary), Kumud Mishra (Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane), Jaimini Pathak (Mahadevbhai), Rakesh Bedi (Massage), Tom Alter (Maulana Azad), Ajit Kelkar (Laxman’s Common Man), Utkarsh Mazumdar (Jaagine Joun To: Narasainyo and Rajit Kapoor (Flowers); actor, singer, composer Shekhar Sen has made a career out of solo acts like Kabir, Tulsi and Vivekanand and Lushin Dubey with issue based plays like Untitled and Bitter Chocolate. Dilip Prabhawalkar’s laugh riot Haswa Phasvi (later done in Gujarati and Hindi by Manoj Joshi) has the actor play multiple parts. Delna Mody played multiple parts and sang Edith Piaf’s haunting songs in a production called All That I Ever Wanted, inspired by the great French singer. Recently, Denzil Smith played several characters in Zubin Driver’s Mumbai vs Mumbai.

On the English stage, Rahul da Cunha’s group Rage pioneered the monologue with Going Solo and more recently One On One; Vikram Kapadia used the format of stringing together a bunch of monologues with a loosely bound theme and wrote Bombay Talkies, of which his piece about a man not being able to get a passport without resorting to bribery brings the house every time.

A skilled actor, who is able to entrance the audience, can make each person in the theatre feel that he/she has a special connect to the character on stage. If the audience is able to focus on that one actor, then it is possible to put forward ideas and experiences in a more concentrated form, even revisiting history as Karl Marx, Churchill or Adolf Hitler.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator