Sunday September 24, 2023

Laughing off the delusion of being civilised and free human beings

September 17, 2022

The 40 minutes during which an English translation of Polish dramatist Slawomir Mrozek’s play titled ‘Out at Sea’ was enacted at the Arts Council of Pakistan on Friday proved to be thoroughly entertaining for the audience.

Dealing with the themes of justice, freedom and democracy, the satirical play raises disturbing questions about these ideals and how they are manifested in a corrupt state in human society.

Though Mrozek is included among the playwrights associated with the movement of the theatre of the absurd, the particular play does not very well fit into the definition of an absurd play due to the virtue of having a plot with the motivations of its major characters clear.

The plot is simple. Three men, who are identified as Fat, Medium and Thin due to their relative physique rather than their names, have been stranded on a raft in an ocean with their supplies run out. With nothing to eat, the play begins with a proposal coming from the Fat that one of them must voluntarily present himself to be butchered so that the other two could cook and eat him.

Soon it is established that the Fat and the Medium have allied with each other to devour the Thin. However, in order to retain the guise of civilised persons, they don’t use brute force to subdue him. They go for arguments and tactics such as employing the democratic way of voting to force the Thin to acquiesce.

The rest of the play is about how the Thin tries to counter the cunning strategies employed by the other two until he finds no escape route and resigns to his fate when suddenly some food is found on the raft.

At one point, the three decide to hold speeches so that everyone may convince the others to spare him. Whereas, the Thin tries to invoke pity by stating how his death would affect his family, the Medium says he is a good cook and should be spared because he will turn the flesh of the human sacrifice into a succulent meal.

The voting also fails because once the counting begins, it is found that the total votes that were cast were four instead of three. It reminded many in the audience how often elections got discredited in our country.

Directed by Zeeshan Haider Nalwala, the new head of the Arts Council’s theatre department, the play was, for some mysterious reason, staged inside a studio room rather than an auditorium, due to which, despite the elevated stage, the view was not completely unobstructed with the heads of those sitting in the front rows becoming an obstacle to the sight of those sitting behind.

Yet, the performances were quite good. The actors were audible and spoke English in a neutral accent that made their utterances comprehendible to the Pakistani audience. Among the characters, the Thin played by Bilal Ahmed had the most to offer and the actor did not disappoint. His worrisome facial expressions as he tried to avoid being cannibalised generated smiles.

The other actors — Hassan Irfan who played the Fat, Mustafa Shah who played the Medium and Sajeel who played two swimming characters joining the three on the raft for a short time — also performed their parts well.

Overall it was a worthy endeavour. It won’t do harm if the Art Council decides to hold the play, which is to run until tomorrow, September 16, for a few more days.