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Up close and very embarrassing
The first time the F-word was dropped, the audience had hands over mouths, bubbling over with giggles, much like the nervous laughter after a sudden bloodcurdling scene in a horror movie. But in a dramatised reading of what is possibly the world's most popular erotic book, embarrassment is to be expected, especially when you hear it in the company of strangers. The laughter, however, died down soon and was instead replaced with heads in hands.
In E L James' erotic novel that explores the clandestine world of dark sexual practices, Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele bites her lip 35 times, says a very helpful review on Amazon. Steele, a young college student, who is also a virgin, is enraptured by the dashing, scarily successful CEO of a company with deadly good looks, Christian Grey. And mostly in reference to her object of desire, Steele also says "Jeez" 81 times, "Oh my" 72 times and blushes 125 times in various degrees of red.
Now imagine this book being translated into a dramatised reading. The 90-minute performance punctuated by readings from the book was conceptualised by Delhi's Akshara Theatre's Jalabala Vaidya and directed by her husband Gopal Sharman. Commensurate to its central theme of bondage, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism (BDSM), there is a lot of 'pain' in the book.
If you are not fond of purple prose, a book like that could, at best, leave you cringing on your own, but a play does not allow for any such personal embarrassment. Most of the wincing, though, was not prompted by the explicit sexual tones of the book/dramatised reading but by its infantile and repetitive dialogue (from the book), amateurish acting by a college cast and a lack of chemistry between primary characters which in a plot like this is absolutely crucial. For the most part, Steele, (Kritika Pande) played flirty and coy by batting eyelashes a lot but actually managed to look as though she wanted to burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
In the novel, Grey is supposed to be magnetic and charismatic. After all, he holds Steele in a spell that is impossible to escape (steel/furry handcuffs notwithstanding ). Raghav Shankar, who acts as Grey in the play, seemed to take his character's name seriously - he portrayed grayness better than a two-week-old roadkill. He was ungainly and looked uncomfortable in his suit, even more so while holding a whip that lashes out at Steele's derriere six times in succession.
The most graphic parts of the book, which take place in Grey's "Red Room of Pain", are read out by a disembodied voice (Vaidya) while shadowy vignettes of a couple appear on stage in various stages of bondage and coupling - in intermittent flashes of red light.
The most discordant part, however, was that though these sex scenes involved Steele and Grey, the person who played the part of the male dominant in these "stills" was not Shankar. Instead it was someone much more buff who probably did not mind taking off his shirt.
One part of the reading, though, was a pleasant surprise - the reading of the do's and don'ts for a "submissive". The pleasure was not in the content but in the way it reworked the tedious reading of a long list into a series of campy shorts. And mostly because the cast had fun with it.
The idea of dramatising a book that most people would read under the anonymous cover of a Kindle is commendable but if the objective is to rip the covers off sexual fetishes that flourish behind closed doors and in front of a live audience, Fifty Shades of Grey is probably a wrong choice. Though the book is rife with titillation, most of it is quite collegiate. The Sunday shows for the play were full or almost full. But James' book, after all, has sold more than 5. 3 million copies (both print and electronic)
padmaparna. ghosh@timesgroup. com
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