The room is a guesthouse in India. Furnished with broad strokes in mahogany and beige, it is a massive, symmetrical spread, where Chinese décor and French doors juxtapose behind sheer drapes, drenched in a sepia tone. Outside the performance space, the expansive dressing area seems almost a bazaar, where actors prepare and receive greetings from audience members before the show.
The phone rings, interrupting the apparent tranquility and Cornelia’s (Hélène Cinque) fitful slumber. On the other end of the line, Astrid (the administrator of the theatre troupe) speaks in a frantic voice, relaying to the assistant director some urgent new developments. The Parisian theatre troupe has been on tour in India, and the director of the company (Mr. Lear) has quit just days before the scheduled premiere of their commissioned work in India. The monumental task of putting together a spectacle thus falls onto the inexperienced Cornelia, who becomes overwhelmed by the sudden pressure to create “resolutely contemporary and political theatre,” as well as her own lack of original vision.
It’s impossible to answer the question: what exactly is in A Room in India? The better question should be: what isn’t? Cornelia’s anxiety turns the spacious guesthouse into the epicenter of her fever dream, which is a kaleidoscopic whirligig of every theatrical element imaginable. Her way of coping with the sudden onset of compounding stress might not be the most effective, but nevertheless understandable: instead of having any logical contingency plan, all Cornelia has managed to do is hiding under the bed sheet, in the hope that inspiration will come to her in a daydream. And sure enough, inspiration, or rather, a flurry of notions comes to her in the form of apparitions as disjointed as her stress-induced diarrhea. The separation scene between Lear (Seietsu Onochi) and Cordelia (Man-Wai Fok) plays out in Japanese noh style, almost as a parallel to the director Mr. Lear abandoning his assistant Cornelia. William Shakespeare (Maurice Durozier) enters with a gust of tempestuous wind, along with his little page (Dominique Jambert), full of almost maniacal passion, while Chekhov (Arman Saribekyan), in his gentle demeanor, comforts Cornelia in her anxiety-ridden state in the company of the three sisters (Alice Millequant, Andrea Merchant, and Dominique Jambert, playing Olga, Masha, and Irina).
Besides the theatrical grandmasters, Cornelia’s dreams are also invaded by members of the Taliban (she tries to entertain the idea of making fun of the villains), Ghandi (Samir Abdul Jabbar Saed, with those famous circular eyeglasses and walking stick), a pair of monkeys holding AK-47s, and a nightmare of a terror attack in Paris by none other than her own daughter, age 16, with a Middle Eastern boyfriend. Cornelia calls her daughter after that moment of terror, thus giving us one of the most incredibly tender moments in the show.
The eclectic, freshly leaderless troupe also turns to the unwilling “emergency deputy” for guidance, all of them pondering the same dilemma as Cornelia: in a conflict-ridden world, what is the responsibility of artists? The Iraqi actor Saad (Saed, again) laments the loss of Iraq’s theatre tradition, and shares his own fear with Cornelia, as they both appreciate the beauty of Adhan (the Islamic call to worship). Another actor, Giuliano (Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini), suggests the timelessness of Shakespeare, as a troupe of actors rehearses Richard III in Aleppo as the sound of bombing rings out in the background. A live feed of the actors rehearsing in the bunker is projected onto the screen as Giuliano goes under the stage as if transported to a different part of the world, until the attackers come with machine guns, and he has to retreat back to the sanctuary-like Indian room. It’s a difficult scene to watch, for the terror seems closer than ever.
Beyond the parade of iconic characters and various political and cultural elements of relevance, the room in India is also the stage where a Terukkuttu ensemble (a Tamil street theater troupe, in dazzling costumes) performs scenes from the Mahabharata, the world’s longest epic poem narrating the power struggles between two families in ancient India. It’s been one of Director Lear’s objectives to learn from Terukkuttu, although this traditional theatre form is fading even in its native land. While a specifically Indian tale, the endless battles depicted in the epic between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, two groups of princes from the same heritage, serve as an allegorical parallel of the ceaseless conflicts in the theatre of world politics.
Developed after the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 by director Ariane Mnouchkine and the troupe of the Théâtre du Soleil, A Room in India seems a direct response, as well as a physical manifestation of the sense of helplessness shared by both eastern and western artists. Cornelia and her colleagues also grapple with this disturbing thought: if tomorrow, all the theaters in the world are demolished, will they be missed? It’s a vulnerable position for theatre artists, whose values to the communities might not seem directly beneficial. Cornelia and her troupe of actors battle their inner doubts to define the worth of theatre, to persist despite exhaustion when there are simply too many issues to be addressed, and moreover, to justify the continuous effort to create as a form of healing.
The apparent chaos of A Room in India is very much intentional. The room is where everything happens, and in spite of the busiest, most eclectic collection of elements you can possibly see within one play, the show doesn’t seem to be losing its gravity. Performed in French, Tamil, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, and English, A Room In India is a spectacle of the joined effort of 35 multinational performers, and together they form a small universe of distinct characters. There isn’t a single dull moment in the whopping 3 hours and 35 minute long saga.
The final takeaway offered by the Theatre du Soleil is an unyieldingly hopeful one. The iconic speech from The Great Dictator is staged in the end with Charlie Chaplin’s character, bearded and in a turban, repeating the familiar words of hope. He’s shot down by radical terrorists over and over, but resurrected yet again by the troupe of artists, not yet willing to give in to terror.
The room is a canvas on which various shades of saturated colors swirl into harmony, each one representing a different culture or religion or political stance. But at the end of the day, it’s proof that theater, or rather, any kind of community-based art, is a counterbalance to violence. Will theaters be missed if bombings and terrorists attacks and general unrest, destroyed them all? As far as I can tell from A Room in India, none of those things can destroy theater to begin with. The artists are much more resilient than that.
A Room in India runs to December 20. More production info can be found here.