A fisherman’s boat in the middle of a living room, a menacing skeleton in one corner, and a talking goose in another are some of the characters (props) that inhabit the living room of the couple we meet in The Skeleton Woman. Then there’s the sea that appears, vanishes and reappears, and in the middle of it is the couple—a fisherman-turned-writer entrapped in his own imagination, and his wife, seemingly his only connection to reality—who have mentally moved worlds apart from each other.
Inspired by a haunting and humorous Inuit folk tale, the play, that also won The Hindu MetroPlus Playwright Award 2009, is an ambitious—and innovative—work. Not many English plays are being produced, at least in Mumbai, and The Skeleton Woman, produced by film-maker Anurag Kashyap and directed by documentary film-maker Nayantara Kotian, is that occasional treat for theatre lovers.
Prashant Prakash, with Kalki Koechlin at a rehearsal.
Inuit is a generic term that represents the cultural life of the indigenous people of the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland and Alaska in the US. Much of Inuit folk literature is about hunters and fishermen of the “dark north”, dealing with beastly predators and ghosts. Superstitions and myths about the supernatural abound in these stories and they are often scary and humorous at the same time.
The appeal of The Skeleton Woman, earlier performed by theatre groups in other parts of the world, is however the strong and complex woman at its heart. Although it’s the writer’s imagination on which the story rests, the woman’s predicament gives it narrative propulsion—from hope to anguish to despair, she goes through a gamut of emotions trying to revive the marriage. At other times, she is a willing puppet in her husband’s fantastical escapades.
The play opens with the couple moving in to a new house. Standing on a boat, and lost in his imaginary world, the writer stares into space while the wife tries to settle into their new home, unpacking furniture and going about her work with a sense of urgency. By the end of the first scene, the conflict between the enthusiastic woman and her indifferent spouse is obvious.
As their relationship unfolds, the real often merging into the imaginary, the wife becomes a part of his imaginary world. In one of the best scenes in the play, they are frolicking in the ocean, spotting dolphins and fishing together. Those are happy times for the writer. In sad times, he is tortured by the business of life and his wife’s urgings to “do something”.
The female lead is played by Kalki Koechlin, who was last seen as Chanda in Kashyap’s film Dev D (2009). It seems she has a better stage presence (Koechlin studied theatre in London and worked with a theatre group there) than in front of the camera. She has an effortlessly expressive face, her dialogue delivery works much better in English and her body language suits the stage well. The stage actor Prashant Prakash, with whom Koechlin wrote the play, is also an actor with promise.
Props and lighting play a crucial role in the play and fluid, makeshift backgrounds constructed with paper strike the balance between fantasy and reality that the story requires.
The Skeleton Woman is about love, loneliness, death and imagination, and how, sometimes, imagination can be a terrible thing. But does reality triumph in the end? Is the wife real or a walking, talking apparition? Is art pointless? These are questions that come to mind while you’re watching the play, and some of the answers in the end don’t disappoint.
The Skeleton Woman at Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, on 11-12 April, at 8pm. Tickets available at India Habitat Centre for Rs200 and Rs500.