Stage Director Bruce Guthrie Speaks About His Play Constellations

Stage Director Bruce Guthrie Speaks About His Play Constellations

Staged At NCPA, the play is headlined by Kunaal Roy Kapur and Aahana Kumra

Narendra KusnurUpdated: Saturday, February 24, 2024, 07:43 PM IST
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Bruce Guthrie |

At his office at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) complex in Nariman Point, Bruce Guthrie talks of the role Nick Payne’s play Constellations has played in his career. The stage director, who is also NCPA’s head of theatre and film, recalls that this was the theatrical work that brought him to India.

In its earlier avatar, staged at the Experimental Theatre in 2018 and 2019, the play featured actors Jim Sarbh and Mansi Multani. In its current run, the venue is the same, but the roles of beekeeper Roland and cosmologist Marianne are enacted by Kunaal Roy Kapur and Aahana Kumra. The current stint will end with two shows today (February 25), though Guthrie plans to take it to Bengaluru and New Delhi later this year, and Hong Kong next year.

The play had its premiere in London in 2012. Guthrie decided to direct it five years later for the Singapore Repertory Theatre in 2017, before it was staged in Mumbai. It uses the concept of the multiverse to talk of various directions a relationship can take after two people meet. The stage design is made up of 200 bulbs that reflect a starlit sky, and simultaneously talk of the moods of the characters. “The cast of the earlier version wanted to do something else, and I believed Aahana and Kunaal would be perfect for the roles this time. Both roles require constant changes in expression, and they both adapted very well. You don’t have to give the actors the hunger to get things right. The hunger is already there.”

Constellations is one among the four theatre presentations Guthrie has directed in India. Sea Wall, a monologue written by Simon Stephens, also featured Sarbh in 2019. He then directed Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which criticises the Soviet practice of treating political dissidence as a mental illness. Last year, he directed another monologue, Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s St Nicholas, where Zafar Karachiwala plays a jaded and cynical drama critic who falls for a beautiful young actress and chases her through a coven of vampires in modern-day London.

According to Guthrie, he can figure out after watching a play whether he wants to direct it or not. He also believes in retaining the original script to the largest extent. He says, “I believe that theatre is writer-led. As a director, I am just the conveyor, and I help the actors in the expression of the script. To draw a parallel with western classical music, I am not Mozart or any composer. I am the conductor and the actors are like the musicians.”

In comparison to the other three productions, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which had its first Mumbai run at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in November 2022, was a large-scale affair, with 45 live musicians, six actors, 10 dancers and eight child artistes in the choir. The cast was led by Neil Bhoopalam, Denzil Smith, Sohrab Ardeshir, Deepika Deshpande Amin and Mihaail Karachiwala.

In the play, a dissident is locked up in an asylum, sharing the cell with a schizophrenic who believes he’s leading an orchestra. Music, thus, plays an important role, and the score was originally written by renowned composer and conductor Andre Previn. In Guthrie’s presentation, the orchestra consisted of members of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) conducted by Mikel Toms

Because of its requirement of so many musicians, the play has not been performed too often since it was first staged in London in 1977. “The subjects it deals with are relevant even today. The play was something the audience related to and the response was good. There were different views about the ending, but I feel all theatre should be a bit ambiguous, giving people the room to think,” says Guthrie.

Since St Nicholas involved only one character, it had its own challenges. Says Guthrie, “Working on monologues can get tedious because you are interacting with one person. But Zafar (Karachiwala) knew that he enjoyed the role and we shared a great bond.”

Guthrie has followed McPherson’s work since his days at drama school. “I also am into tales of horror and the supernatural, so the reference to vampires in this play attracted me,” he points out.

While he was working on his last two plays, Guthrie also felt the need to revive Constellations. “The previous performances were held before the pandemic. Today, when I look at the script, my own interpretation of certain dialogues and situations has changed. Aahana hadn’t seen the play and though Kunaal says he saw it earlier, but didn’t remember much. So they both looked at the roles with a fresh vision and approach,” says the director.

Besides directing, Guthrie also produces plays in his role at NCPA. Up in April is Caryl Churchill’s Love And Information, directed by Mohit Takalkar and produced in association with Aasakta Kalamanch. After the Marathi theatre festival Pratibimb in May, plans are to have a Gujarati theatre festival. “One special new play will be created for that,” says Guthrie. Many other projects are in the discussion or preparation stage, and the rest of 2024 promises to be exciting.

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