When absurdity makes sense
KARACHI: When Albert Camus wrote that brilliant essay The Myth of Sisyphus in the 1940s it gave birth to a great idea, which perhaps had already been espoused by the existentialist thought that ‘life has no inherent meaning’.
This created the notion of the absurd. Playwrights such as Samuel Becket and Harold Pinter are two of its best exponents. A play titled ‘The Man on a Black Horse’, written by Rouvan Mahmood and directed by Ali Junejo at T2F on Monday evening took the audience to a realm where the line between the profound and the bizarre gets delightfully blurred.
The play oscillated between surrealistic realisations and peculiar interpretations of fact and fiction, and managed to keep the audience, which had turned up in a thin number because of the volatile city situation, engaged throughout the 90-minute duration of the drama.
According to the makers of the play, it’s inspired by the writings of Ferdosi, Rumi, Galczynski and Erich Fromm.
When the play begins, the audience sees a cell and a chair in which a girl Lisa (Meher Jaffri) is sitting. She writes ‘Reality’ on a slate and shows it to the audience. It indicates that the progression of the story will be chapter-wise, and that is exactly what happens because the following two parts of the play are ‘Madness’ and ‘Revelation’. This, however, cannot be considered in the same order. The story goes back and forth, in flashbacks and probable real-time so many times (not to mention with layers of storytelling shifting from linear to parable-like) that it becomes difficult for the viewer to ascertain which is which — reality, madness or revelation.
The story basically pivots around two soldiers Sal (Rouvan Mahmud) and Rumi (Ali Junejo). Sal is loud and assertive while Rumi, as the name suggests, is a bit of an introvert with a poetic streak. He keeps a diary from where he once reads The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in which four beings ride out on white, red, black and pale horses; black symbolises famine and pale death. Lisa appears as the mystery woman. She is not. She plays multiple characters. She can be construed as both soldiers’ conscience, their love-interest, their guilt pangs and their comfort zone.
The soldiers are fighting a war. As it happens in battles, they are confronted with situations over which they have no control. This makes them look back on their lives through different lenses. They fear death. They crave immortality. They commit heinous crimes. They long for love. So there is a kaleidoscope of feelings, situations and consequences, at the heart of which all is the feeling of a ‘lack’ of something, something that they cannot come to grip with.
Lisa keeps emerging in the scenes eliciting all kinds of feelings out of the two soldiers. Though the two men themselves often ask questions (about the futility of war, bloodshed and the rest of the evils that come with it) she is the one who instills in both the men the urge to look themselves in the mirror. At a poignant moment, for example, Sal raises the point, “Is the killer of a killer also not a killer?”
It is the movement called Madness that the existentialist thrust of the play comes forth with full force. The issue of ‘choice’ is touched on. The basic existentialist tenets ‘man is what he does’ and ‘choices in retrospect’ are nicely highlighted in the tussle, hence underlining the absurdity of the whole state of affairs.
While the makers of the play insist that their inspiration is purely literary (and it can’t be disputed) one couldn’t help notice a bit of Quentin Tarantino-like scripting. The refrain of “Is that right” by Lisa sounds Quentinesque and when Sal speaks about the horse being a dirty animal it takes the viewer back to the line from Pulp Fiction, “Pig is a filthy animal”.
Ali Junejo should be commended for directing the play well, because he chose limited physical space (only a cell) to talk about a big subject. The acting of all the three principal performers was praiseworthy. They did justice to their roles. Meher Jaffri is a natural actress. She looked particularly special when she philosophised about ‘birds’ in one sequence. Ali Junejo was at ease with being a brooding chap (he could have raised his volume a bit though). Rouvan Mahmud did well as Sal and despite being a bit excessive with his gestures never came across as over-the-top.
Now let’s come to the low points of the play. It could have been trimmed down a bit. There came a time in the play when the audience started to look at their watches. The actors are young. Hopefully, with the passage of time they will know the virtues of ‘editing’. Then some of the scenes, such as when the story of a seven or eight-year-old girl is narrated, certain things could have been left unsaid and they still would have had the right kind of effect.
On the whole, kudos!