Beyond the stage and script
In Imitation of Death, Emil Madhavi crafts death as an intimate topic that helps him connect with his audience
KOCHI: Though a universal experience, each individual remembers death differently — and this memory is laced with feelings of intimacy triggered by something as mundane as a Marie Biscuit. Personal encounters with the dark subject link each spectator to roots of their past, and they become more than spectators, they become participants.
“The performance starts with a query to the audience. How do you remember death? Each viewer writes a word that comes to their mind on a platter full of sand placed in the centre. They write using their fingers. These words and few described by the actors comprise the first scene,” says Emil Madhavi, director of the theatre performance Imitation of Death. “What each of them says is different. They remember the smell, the chill, the darkness of the room. The coconut shells and lamps are placed near the body. The tea that is served at funerals and the Marie biscuits. Each person remembers death differently,” he adds.
The drama is more than a script, it is stories from life. “All the following scenes are set up in different rooms and places. It is like walking through a museum. As the director, I tell the audience where to go,” says Emil.
Shortly after the first scene, spectators are asked to tie a cloth around their eyes. Then, they walk through different surfaces that their feet can identify — soil, grass and water. “Then, they reach the next scene with a specific smell and a sound, where someone is preparing a grave,” he explains. This scene is called The Colour of Soil. The scene is a frame of the man digging the grave. Despite having no dialogues, the reverberating breath of the digger fills the scene. Everyone in the audience can hear it close to them, making the entire affair intimate. The scene takes a shocking turn when the man digging the grave becomes the one to be buried. The audience becomes the ones spreading soil on the body lying in the grave.
The scene changes from there. “A man trying to die by suicide enters the scene. The viewers can hear his ramblings and feel him close to them. His agony is implicit when he recites numbers and numerical tables with obvious errors,” says Emil. A girl lying in a coffin follows the scene. She will connect with the audience by holding their hands and hugging them to bid farewell. She will talk to them and answer their questions.
“Each scene is shrouded in darkness. Each room is chilly. Everything reminds you of death,” says Emil. The production concludes with death coming face to face with each spectator. The viewers experience their respective ends peacefully. The final and titular session is a deeply meditating one. “Each person experiences things differently. I feel, if someone claps after the show, then I failed in my endeavour. So far, no one has clapped,” quips Emil.
Emil first showcased Imitation of Death in Hyderabad in 2017. “There, people and actors from different states and cultures shared their experience on the subject. It was different in a way, but at the same time, the feelings and experiences were in a way, common,” says Emil.
Novel method of performance
Having acted for around 40 theatre productions and directed 25 plays, Emil wanted to experiment with different modes of theatre production. “What we currently have is public theatre performances in auditoriums and stages where we spend on lighting, sound system and the venue. But many theatre productions cannot afford quality technology. Also, the actors are paid a measly sum at the end of it,” says Emil. His solution was to make the production intimate with a limited audience. Torches, candles, headlights of a car or a motorcycle became his lighting system, one that needn’t be top of the notch because actors and audience are in close quarters. Emil named these ‘The Performance Museum Project’.
After presenting his production in Hyderabad, he started exhibiting the programme in Kerala last year. He has been centring the performance around Government HSS Kokkallur in Kozhikode, along with the Maverick art society of the former students and teachers of the school. Emil and company will soon perform in Kodungallur.