RESPONSES TO THE 'CASCADE' CONFERENCE PLAY READING
Night's Sunlight: Reflections of Alan Rayner upon seeing the Play during the 'Cascade' conference at Bath University, June 30th-July 1st, 2001
Rarely have I felt so surprised and deeply affected by a Play. Not knowing quite what to expect, I took my place among a small audience already weary after a long day's conferencing. Coming in as it does from the Wings of current mainstream drama, the Play began quietly, unassumingly, a little obscurely, refusing to command the Centre Stage of my attention. Then, slowly, layer by layer, it began to unweave its magic, until its deep message about the pressing need for humanity to take a 'New Look' at its Self in relation to its spatial and historical context resounded and reverberated loud and clear. In this New Look, mediated through the dialogue surrounding an authoritative but not insensitive male Indian Professor, gone is the separation of Self from Other enforced by the fixed reference frames and hard and fast boundaries of rational thought. In its place is the scope for mutually transforming relationship between inner and outer, giving hope of more empathic, less abusive and conflicting patterns of consciousness that are the hallmark of what I call 'inclusional' thought. A Play that, like the moon, gently holds a mirror to our Selfhood in Darkness, but at the same time reflects back some light of hope for the future. Who could ask for more?
Alan Rayner is in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Bath, and was the President of the British Mycological Society.
RESPONSES TO THE
Ketaki Kushari Dyson herself is an almost prototypical 'axial writer', one whose imagination and audience span far-flung societies linked by migration history, and who commutes along the migratory routes ('axes'), both in mind and (when she gets the chance) in person. She is resident in England, but still little known here, except among diaspora Bengali readers (and of course readers of Tagore in her excellent translations); here she is marginal, but in Calcutta and more broadly in West Bengal and Bangladesh she is part of the literary establishment, a leading voice in contemporary expatriate literature. Her play, and this production, make no concession to the unspoken rules of multiculturalist performance in the UK, which call for lots of music and dance, visual and physical spectacle, evocation of myth and magic and folklore; instead, this is a 'texty', critical and realist work, which requires the audience to think through the issues being debated by the characters, to think through the processes of translation between the language we are hearing and the language they are 'really' speaking, and also to think through personal and political issues which the characters are finally, movingly, unable to articulate. Making very sparing but all the more effective use of spectactular theatricality and musical punctuation, the play draws us in to a diaspora world in which questions such as: How are we seen? How can we speak? Who is 'other' to us? What is the future of our way of life? are urgently debated.
In Wales, Dyson's work has additional levels of resonance. The Welsh-speaking culture is a shrinking minority on its own historic territory, and also becoming increasingly 'diasporised' through intensifying communication with Welsh-speaking communities all around the world: there are as many Welsh speakers outside as inside Wales, and they are more closely in touch now than ever before. At the same time, Bengali has become, demographically, Wales's third language (although Welsh Bengalis are mostly Moslems from Sylhet, rather than Hindus from Calcutta).
So the meeting staged by Writing Diasporas over three days, between the 'post-migratory ethnic minorities' of the UK and western Europe ('South Asians', Middle Easterners and others) and its 'indigenous cultural minorities' (Welsh and others) with their transnational extensions, was staged in the play-within-the-conference. It was a performance by Whites playing South Asians, playing at being in diaspora, seriously playing for their lives to create a sense of being somewhere safe amid the accelerating, bewildering flux of today's global realities.
I really loved your play and wish you every success with the tour. Please extend my thanks to your director and actors…The best writing makes people think, and you have certainly given me more thoughts than I can even begin to progress.
… thank you for bringing NIGHT'S
SUNLIGHT to Cambridge. As you know, I thought it was a remarkable play,
and the second half especially was terrific. The title words emerged out
of the whole action and text and poem with real impact…. How fascinating
to encounter a text migrating between languages and cultures in this way!
I was going to write anyway to say how very much I enjoyed your play.
Congratulations - it was a triumph! - so unusual and invigorating - made out of the simplest everyday materials but inviting us to look and think afresh. We seemed to have a kind of god's eye view of the characters, not coming very close to any of them but seeing each one working with the truth of their being - their vitality. That's a rare thing: usually you get ideas or feelings but this was different.
I thought the actors were all amazingly good; I can only think that the play itself had the power to draw the best from them; they seemed to engage with it as you do with life in writing it, wholeheartedly.
I loved the vibrant colours of the set too, which went beyond realism to become the fire and the sea, as well as expressing warmth and life in a home.
Wish I could read your novels!
Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s "Night’s Sunlight" is an outstanding play. It can be enjoyed and understood at so many different levels that even after seeing it twice, and participating in the workshop held at our Fertility and Reproduction Seminars, I am still trying to absorb all the messages this rich and unusual play offers. It is an in-depth exploration of not only the Bengali identity and diaspora, but that of gender, time, political movement, myths, and the environment. It weaves together personal and specific matters bound by time, and peculiar to Bengali culture, into a web of global issues which are timeless and universal. What is presented in the play in the form of local practice has indeed universal substance. The practice of suttee (and the burning of Roop Kanwar) highlights at once the question of ownership of women in time and space, and raises the question of whether women are the owners of their own selves, or are used as a commodity for the good of the family and community. Ketaki skilfully uses language as a marker of identity to preserve and distinguish the cultural identity of her personalities. The to and fro between Bengali and English throughout the play draws a line between the boundaries of being a Bengali, and belonging to a multicultural world. The sublime and the trivial are brought together to make sense of the world in which the two young people caught in the diaspora live.
The dialogue is further enhanced by the remarkable production and acting. The feeling with which the actors perform the play is totally convincing. The use of music and the brilliance of colours create a dreamlike atmosphere. A great success in all.
I have just this minute finished reading Raater Rode...and, as it mentions the significance of the title near the end - do you mean that the snatches of joyful social exchange are just as fleeting and beautifully ethereal, well structured and immaculately engineered? - I was struck by my own initial reaction to discovering the recycled nature of moonlight yet again; the eerily beautiful unrealness of it and the realisation how the sun's far-reaching power is with us throughout the night.
I loved the play, needless to say, and do dearly wish that there was an accessible production of it in the north. Ibsen is a favourite of mine and the fact that you mention him in the introduction is not without its poignant touch. …. please accept my deep thanks, again, for writing this play.
… In an evening that was as much theatrical as musical, I found myself thinking about plays I have recently seen. In particular, I kept thinking of Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s play, Night’s Sunlight, that in September and October was performed in nine different venues in her own English translation.
The Bengali original, Raater Rode, will be familiar to many readers of this article, so I shan’t summarise it here. I saw it performed in Bengali by Sunil Das’s Sangbarta group, in Birmingham in 1994, and only enjoyed it moderately then. This time I enjoyed it hugely not just because the English was, of course, easier for me to follow, but because to see it in English, in the British context, gave it an added interest. The Bengali performance, despite the detailed synopsis that was provided, could only really appeal to those who could understand it in Bengali; in Ketaki’s superbly fluent and idiomatic English version, it can now be fully absorbed into English experience, just as we can absorb Ibsen or Brecht.
The translation was commissioned by the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, and the production, by Tidal Wave Theatre, is a special Millennium Festival Project of the Centre. I saw it in the Harold Pinter Studio Theatre at Queen Mary and Westfield College, East London; performances outside London have been given in Swansea, Norwich, Reading, Cambridge, Bristol, Henley and Oxford.
The acting by an entirely English cast was brilliant. The play is long, and must be exhausting to perform, but the actors threw themselves into every line from start to finish, generating precisely the wit, wordplay, fantasy, argument, hilarity and moral seriousness that the text demands.
Shikha as performed by Phoebe Bond perfectly lived up to her fiery name; and Rudy, played by Tom Rogers, was mercilessly energetic as he joined forces with Shikha to tie the hapless Obhi Babu into ever more intricate philosophic and moral knots.
Why did Christian Lindberg’s antics remind me of Ketaki’s play? Well, one thing they certainly had in common was energy and exuberance of performance. On both occasions, the audience was small, though students from the college filled the auditorium for Ketaki’s play. Yet the performers gave us the zest and commitment that a much larger audience might expect. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. Whatever may be said about Ketaki’s play being over-long, or lacking in action, I think it must be tremendous fun to perform: and that says a lot for the strength of her theatrical instincts. She knows how to write lines whether in Bengali or English that actors love to roll round their tongues, and which allow them to go thoroughly ‘over the top’, to let themselves rip in a way that every born actor wants. That is partly because of the play-acting within the play the ‘role-plays’ about Roop Kanwar’s suttee and of Calcutta sinking beneath the sea, that the irrepressible Shikha and Rudy drag Obhimonyu into.
I also find Ketaki’s approach to play-writing extremely musical. She was at the performance I saw, and when I congratulated her afterwards I said that I had not appreciated, when I saw it in Bengali, how carefully patterned it was.
Reading the text subsequently (it was printed in full in the programme), I have become even more aware of the patterning. The play is verbal polyphony, with many of its themes and images hysterectomy, menopause, nettle-tea, Natalia Makarova, ‘Women eligible but not required’, ‘Mind the gap’, global warming or whatever coming round and round again like phrases in a fugue.
Finally, I find a link with my reflections at the beginning on the often unfair and arbitrary hierarchy in musical instruments. Ketaki is strongly aware of other unfair hierarchies: whether in language (Bengali low down in the linguistic pecking-order), gender (the basic hierarchy that allows male motor-scooter riders in India to ride with a crash helmet, while permitting their female pillion-riders to ride with no helmet), or the ‘wealth of nations’.
Ketaki is a fighter, but a very positive and cheerful fighter, just as Christian Lindberg is a cheerful fighter for his neglected instrument. Her play is about many things; but performed in English, in the British context, it projects above all the determination of second generation Asian immigrants represented by Shikha and Rudy to assert their ‘mission control’, to find their own way of steering through a complex, perilous and baffling world. Their absorption of both Eastern and Western culture makes them particularly attuned - at the serious end of the spectrum - to crucial international issues, and to inter-cultural and inter-linguistic puns and doubles entendres at the light-hearted end of it.
In her linguistic and intellectual patterning, there is elegance and humour, just as Christian Lindberg finds and projects humour and elegance in the patterns and polyphony of music. Ketaki would have enjoyed his performance, and he would have enjoyed her play. They both understand very well that, benighted though this world may be, the sun obstinately shines.
Published in the column
Part of this review was reprinted
in the IIAS Newsletter, Leiden
….. there were so many issues raised in it that a person needs some time to digest all. Especially for one who is not rooted in either of these cultures. …My acquaintance with and distance from both cultures, however, can be an indicator that the issues you raised have a universal appeal -precisely as you wanted to and as the actors understood it. …By the way the acting was excellent… At the same time it does not lose its Bengali colour at all. (Even though it means that it will be appreciated more by people who are acquainted with Bengali culture.) However the ‘gaps’ mentioned in the play are just the most important ones in a society.
…the mention of Ceausescu … did not let the audience forget that the world is bigger than England and India and in other places vital issues may be of a different kind.
… the recurring themes give the drama a musical (and lyrical) structure and make us think [of] certain issues again and again.
The two mini-dramas within the play made the deepest impression on me. One was forceful, the other lyrical.
… It is a peculiarity of an
excellent piece of art that people belonging to different generations,
nations, social groups etc appreciate different aspects of it. I was really
happy to get a glimpse of a world about which I know so
The meeting point of two cultures is both a stimulating and uncomfortable place to be, and both aspects were well reflected in the Tidal Wave Theatre’s production of Night’s Sunlight … at the Pegasus Theatre.
… Much of the play derives from the author’s interest in language, contrasting English and Bengali means of expression, and the handing down of Bengali culture to a new generation overseas.
Watching this with my daughter, who is newly returned from India, I was uncomfortably aware that there was a fair number of cultural allusions which passed me by and some which escaped both of us. The feeling of dislocation was further increased by the use of thoroughly English actors speaking lines which, although perfect in their structure, were often not quite the right idiom.
The action is dominated by the visitor, Professor Choudhury, a role extravagantly played by Paul Prescott. … There is also an important contribution from an unnamed musician [David Holmes] who contributes much to the background through instruments and special effects.
Ms Dyson’s next play will continue to explore the two cultures which she clearly knows intimately, and there can be little doubt that she will continue to challenge and disturb her audience.
A personal response to 'Night's Sunlight':
First and foremost it struck me very much as an 'east meets west' piece of drama. We the audience were frequently transported from England to Calcutta and back. The device of 'drama within drama' meant that we felt we were in Calcutta even though the whole play was set in England. And there was nothing artificial or contrived about this but it arose organically through the interplay of characters and the issues they were discussing. As well as the changing sense of location, there was the intergenerational interest. The two younger characters were clearly more westernised, and their interest in the east was more objective and less nostalgic. The differences between eastern and western culture not only were highlighted through the various issues discussed in the interaction, but also came out through the interplay of the different generations and the varying personal histories. Most of the play was composed of discussion and conversation, but within this a fantastically rich weave of political, cultural and psychological factors interspersed with emotion, dramatic movement and liberal doses of comedy, is achieved. In the beginning of the second act, the play moves into a more spiritual dimension, and for a western audience at this point, the mystery and divergence of an eastern culture becomes dramatically apparent.
I felt the actors and actresses brought out all these complex and interweaving elements incredibly well. For me as a westerner it was an amazing coup to have white actors playing the parts. They drew you into eastern ways of thinking and being and you no longer noticed the colour of their skin. The whole thrust of the play seemed to me to be about understanding divergences between cultures, and in particular how this impacted on those making transitions between cultures. If the intent was to achieve a greater awareness of these issues, so that a closer understanding need not mean a blurring of the differences, then I felt the play itself, and the way it was acted and directed, should be accorded a resounding success.
I was very glad to have the opportunity to see this important play in translation. It is vital that the diversity of the British experience with all its multicultural aspects is represented on the British stage. This is a much needed antidote to much mainstream, pedestrian English theatre, one that introduces the audience to an alternative vibrant theatrical tradition. This is also a play which raises key issues about the diaspora experience, in a way that has direct relevance for other cultural traditions. I was very glad also to see that this play had received lottery funding. I particularly enjoyed the exciting mix of dialogue, music and aspects of visual and physical theatre in the play.
The original Bengali version of this play was first performed as part of the Manchester City of Drama 1994 events and toured various other cities in Britain that year. I saw it performed by a talented Bengali cast at Oxford's Pegasus Theatre. Ably translated by the playwright herself, I saw its first performance in English six years later at Swansea's Taliesin Theatre, an English cast this time in the role of diasporic Indians! Both performances brought to vivid life the atmospheric nature of some of the scenes in the play, especially the mesmeric - even surreal - quality of the scenes where the characters search for the Calcutta of the future, a city drowned under the ocean waves; and the re-enactment of a Rajasthani widow's suttee with the flames leaping over the funeral pyre. The English performance has often been accompanied by workshops and discussions, that enhance its educational appeal for students of theatre, language, literary translation and gender studies. I was glad to see it twice, as it were, and then to read the play, for it is a challenging and thought-provoking script that repays repetition. University courses dealing with post-colonial and feminist writing will find much to study in Night's Sunlight.
Many plays that are performed fail to be published and this is especially true of plays in translation. In fact, hardly any plays in South Asian languages are ever published. In a lengthy but interesting Translator's Prologue, Ketaki Kushari Dyson gives some insight into the travails of the literary translator and the politics that prevail in the overlapping worlds of literature, theatre, publishing and arts funding.
People who haven't yet had a chance to see a performance but have only read the text are enthusiastic too:
Thanks a lot. Night's Sunlight is a really powerful play...
I read through the translator's prologue of Night's Sunlight, and simply loved it. It's a very powerful piece of writing, and thought-provoking.
Having read it fully I think the play is such a powerful piece of work, layered and very much relating to the substantive widening participation and equal opportunities initiatives that are happening in Higher Education, and throughout the academic and social sector.
ON THE 1997 PRODUCTION
OPINIONS ON THE 1994 PRODUCTION