“The Emperor of All Maladies”, a Pulitzer-winning book by Siddharth Mukherjee, is an intense book about that dreaded “C” word…cancer, and looks at the dread ailment via multiple lenses…history, biography, describing the several discoveries, obstacles,triumphs and failures in humanity’s long journey with, and battle against, cancer.
To base a play on a book like this is a major challenge, and Bangalore Little Theatre rose up to that challenge with their play, which I watched at Ranga Shankara on the 27th of February, ’19. The theatre group had produced an excellent brochure, which described the play. I skimmed through it, wanting to let the theatre experience wash over me, without preconceptions.
The play was indeed as intense as the book; cancer is viewed like a kaleidoscope, from the opening scene of the “oncomice” (patented in the process of studying cancer), to how it feels to be diagnosed with the dread disease; from the scientists and doctors who made their contributions to the therapy, their right and wrong decisions; the ethics committees that sat in judgement on them, often hindering or stopping protocols; the suffering of cancer patients, the positivity and negativity they face from those around them, and the mental framework of the survivors. The references were more to leukaemia in children, which is a very emotional issue. The denouement and the climax of the play comes with a zing, and a hark-back to the beginning, that I cannot reveal without spoiling the suprise!
The stage design was well done; one area was designated as a kind of lab set up, where doctors and scientists could be seen pondering and worrying over tests and results; another, with two step-ladders (why did the two actors have to sit on different levels was never clear to me), represented the ethics committee’s sessions. A bench also became a hospital bed with the addition of a saline drip stand, and two chairs and a table at the left of the stage became an area where a friendship between two people blossoms into love, while one of them is diagnosed with cancer, though she is training to be an oncologist herself.
The costumes that the cast wore were very interesting. All of the cast, except for the character of the budding oncologist, wore very smart dungarees/overalls; the addition of coats, lab coats, or lace-edged ponchos demarcated the differentiation in the characters portrayed.
The dialogue was another very difficult part of the play, consisting, as it did, of many technical terms and names of protocols and processes. The playwrights tried to overcome this difficulty by simplifying as much as they could, and also using a blackboard to write some of the figures (such as 41,000 doctors who responded to a survey, or the names of the V.A.M.P protocol) so that they were clear to the audience. In spite of this, the jargon did tend to overwhelm us and we struggled, also, to keep up with the names of the doctors and scientists; some who wanted glory, and some who were truly dedicated. I must compliment the cast on their excellent command of these difficult lines, and the clear diction which ensured that the audience got the names well.
The music in the production was a major part of it. From the drum that heightened the tension in scenes, the music at every point underscored the narrative of the play, and the building tension of unfolding events. The eerie tune of “Three Blind Mice”m played on the harmonica, heightened the fact that not only the laboratory mice but the patients themselves, are sometimes the guinea pigs of those who try to work out a cure for this disease, trying new treatments and protocols on hapless sufferers.
The lighting was extremely effective too, highlighting the action at different parts of the stage, and picking up expressions such as Dastan’s amorous humour, Deeksha’s study-related tensions, or the sadness on Carla’s face as she realizes her illness. The darkness made space and time for the shifting of the stage props such as the benches, and stools, the positions for which were clearly marked on the floor of the stage.
The direction was one of the best parts of the production I watched; by being unseen, it was all the more effective. However, I would certainly suggest that a certain looseness in the production could be tightened up, which would also cut short the length of the play. I think, that with more stagings of the play, this may be done.
This is not a play for those who are looking for an evening of candy-floss escape from the real world; it brings the audience face to face with the enemy within us, that humanity has faced, fought, overcome and succumbed to, over time. It showed us how ambition or vainglory can sometimes trump compassion and empathy; but it also brought us the stories of those who conquered the illness, those who made breakthroughs in the treatments and ended with the statement that negated the title of the book on which it is based: “It is not the emperor of maladies”, but just the foe that must, and should, be conquered. A worthy effort by Bangalore Little Theatre, and I look forward to watching further productions of this play to see how it evolves.
Monsters in the Dark, by Bangalore Little Theatre
Ranga Shankara, 27 Feb ’19
Playwrights: Ravi Chari, Kavya Srinivasan
Directors: Murtuza Khetty, Deepak Mote
Costumes and Set: Aruna Nori
Cast: Abhishek Sundaravadanan, Deepthi Adappa, Disha Mittal, Khyati Raja, Meera Girijan, Minti Jain, Paawan Mukker, Prabha Venkatesh, Ratneshwar Bannerghaee, Shreekant Road, Shreya Sen, Sne
ha Sridhar, Vignesh Suresh
Backstage: B N Rangashre, Vinay Kambappa, Vaidya Ojha
Music: Aniruddh G, Harmonica
Production supported by a grant from Kusum and Mohandas Pai and contributions from Bangalore Little Theatre, Health and Humanities, St. John’s Research Institute, and Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai.