Sunday, 18 January 2009



“Theatre exists in every sphere of our lives, even in this delicacy,” Professor Ralph Yarrow picks up a hot samosa from his plate and says with a benign smile. Quite taken aback by the idea of theatre in samosa, I ask him to elaborate. “Theatre is a mode of communication of ideas. Let’s imagine that a Westerner like me is using knife and fork to eat this delicacy… for an Indian that will definitely be a funny sight. The action and the reactions will be theatrical in a given Indian setting,” the theatre scholar from the United Kingdom says. For Yarrow, we all need to have some understanding of theatre. “Without that we cannot communicate with the elements around us, whether animate or inanimate.”

Yarrow, who is a professor of drama and comparative literature at the University of East Anglia for decades, has been writing books on theatre. He was in Pune recently to deliver a lecture and conduct workshops for the students of Lalit Kala Kendra of the University of Pune. I caught up with him at the campus.

In his book Indian Theatre: Theatre of Origin, Theatre of Freedom, Yarrow has stated that there has been a constant traffic of training from the East to the West since 1930s. He elaborates, “India and China have remained sources for actors in the West to learn how to control their body and breathing in order to express balanced emotions. India, in particular, has taught actors how to make the body flexible so that everything of the body becomes available when required as well as remain still if the situation demands.” These skills, says Yarrow, help an actor to offer a “radicalised performance that will explore every moment.”

But, is this traffic prevalent even today, we ask. “Yes, it is a continuing process and it has been a gain for both the Western and Eastern theatre activists,” he replies. “And so we had Peter Brook and his production of The Mahabharata. It helped in showcasing improvisations and flexibility on stage that other directors in the West have learnt from. Kalamandalam Vijayakumar and his troupe provided training in Kathakali to theatre students in the UK.” However, Yarrow admits the audience of Indian theatre is still not as big as the audience of Bollywood movies screened in the UK. “People who watch Indian theatre in the UK are either of ethnic origin or they have some special interest”.

‘Performance training’ has been one of Yarrow’s scholarly interests. “Such a training should involve not only the future performers but also those who would train the performers,” he says. In this context Yarrow, who also has been a performer, mentions the “lack of proper training facilities in India for those who in their turn will train the actors and others associated with theatre.” People involved with a theatre production must have a proper exposure to all the aspects of the effort, he says. “The training involves understanding different forms of theatre and cultural varieties that seep into the acting.”

In his book, Yarrow has mentioned the ‘inner stillness of performers.’ We ask him to elaborate. “I tell this to my students that studying theatre requires understanding how to make the acting slower than normal… somewhat like learning how to know nothing,” Yarrow says. To explain the concept, he cites number of works by playwright Samuel Beckett. “In the play Endgame, for example, the protagonist Hamm’s servant Clov informs Hamm that everything --- temperature, humidity and wind speed --- are reading zero. Think of such a state… and that’s what I mean when I talk about minimal acting,” he avers. Yarrow then refers to Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape and displays how “each word that the actor utters can have different meaning according to acting.”

Continuing with Beckett, he says, almost all the characters created by Beckett are placed in a situation where they all have to go on and on, as in the case of the Mouth that keeps talking in the play Not I, and through them “the audience gets an opportunity to join the process of making sense of the surrounding.”

(The interview was published in Sakaal Times of Pune on January 18, 2009)