Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is probably his most popular, done all over the world in different languages; every culture can identify with a woman’s suffocation in a bad marriage and her leaving her marital home with a door slam, the echo of which was heard around the world.
His Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, Master Builder, Hedda Gabbler, Wild Duck, Lady From The Sea have also had productions in India, but not many have attempted Peer Gynt.
It is a five-act play in verse, steeped in the fairy tales and folklore of Norway, and hence, widely performed in the playwright’s own country. It is also Ibsen’s most stylised play blending realism and fantasy. It is not easy for a director, designer and actors to get the right tone. But it also allows for the imagination to run wild through Ibsen’s surreal vision.
Ila Arun presented the Ibsen theater festival in collaboration with the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Mumbai on Oct 31 where she took on the brave task of adapting Peer Gynt. Ila also goes out of her comfort zone of Rajasthani folk music and sets her Peer Ghani in Kashmir, to mirror the snow covered landscape of Norway
Although the lazy, dreamer Peer Gynt of the play belongs to the hills and valleys of Norway, characters like him are found in every rural society the young man coddled by his widowed mother, who narrates to her magical stories of his fake valour.
Ila Arun, who had earlier adapted Lady from the Sea as Marichika, takes on the brave task of adapting Peer Gynt, trying as far as possible to use verse, but not always succeeding. Ila also goes out of her comfort zone of Rajasthani folk music and sets her Peer Ghani in Kashmir, to mirror the snow covered landscape of Norway. Her director and collaborator K K Raina (together they run a group called Surnai) is from Kashmir and brings to the play a reflection of the ensuing tragedy of his home state, a paradise wrecked by militancy and its aftermath.
The version presented at the recently concluded Ibsen festival in Mumbai, is a much truncated, also a bit stodgy in its staging; still there are moments that are moving, simply because many viewers must be imposing on the proceedings of their own impressions of the Kashmir issue, that appeals to everyone in India at an emotional and visceral level. The images that flash through the mind as an old Peer Ghani returns to a ravaged state, are residual images from print, TV, documentary, cinema and every medium that has captured the torment of the people. The beauty of the landscape projected on stage only heightens the mood of bleakness, because the serenity of hills, forests and simple dwellings is so deceptive.
Like the young man of Ibsen’s play, Peer Ghani (Syed Zeeshan Qadri), frolics around his mother Ase (Ila Arun), who part affectionate-part exasperated calls him “Haraamzaade, Fakirzaade”, as she sees through his tall tales.
When he hears of a girl he likes being married to another man, he dumps his mother on the roof of the house and goes off to break up the wedding. There his boasting has little impact on the men, but a girl called Haseena (Shravani Mukherjee) falls for him. Peer captures the bride and carries her off to the mountains, where he abandons her.
Then, telling Haseena to wait for him by a mountain cabin, he goes off on a fantastical adventure where he runs into a group of demons with horns and tails (this section is rather shoddy). Here too, he leaves a love-lorn woman behind.
Later, an older Peer (K K Raina) is seen partying with a group of Arabs, boasting of how he made his fortune through dealing in drugs and weapons. He tells them of his brief return to his village where his mother breathes her last.
An attack on the group by militants drives Peer back to Kashmir where, he sees the destruction he has wrought by the crimes he committed. Ila Arun makes changes in the text to make it contemporary, and in the process loses the magical progression of Peer’s adventures. His travels across the world, his dalliance with a dancing girl, his stay in an insane asylum and so many episodes are set aside to hasten his journey home.
His encounter with a photographer (Ashwin Mushran), who lost his livelihood when the tourists stopped coming to Kashmir has little to do with Ibsen’s wildly meandering plot.
Finally, Ila Arun’s story joins up with Ibsen’s as Peer meets the Button Man (Vijay Kashyap), who wants to mould him into a button in his ladle he is the harbinger of death, but Peer is not ready to die yet. The Button Man asks him to find someone who will vouch for him, and he can’t find a single soul. Eventually, he reaches the hut, where Haseena has been waiting patiently for him to return. However selfish and vile a man may be, he can find a woman to love him.
Peer Ghani, with a bunch of good actors, and functional stage design, falls somewhere between the magical and the prosaic. Maybe it needed some more of Ibsen’s spirit, and not just slivers of his words. Still, the Kashmiri folk music, the authentic costumes and poetic language transport the viewer to another world, which is saying a lot these days when so much theatre in Mumbai offers no takeaway at all.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot