Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

To the Water Station, slowly, slowly

In Humour, Theatre, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:35 am

G Sampath | Saturday, December 24, 2011

First published in DNA
In his 1088-page novel, Infinite Jest, which I haven’t read and may never read but intend to read and want to have read, David Foster Wallace imagines a movie called ‘Infinite Jest’. It’s a piece of entertainment so fatally compelling that all you want to do in life is to watch it over and over again — with no thoughts of eating or sleeping or any other activity — until you die. This week, I watched a mind-blowing (some would say, mind-numbing) play, called The Water Station, which was the absolute opposite of Wallace’s movie: it seeks, and attains, the zero degree of entertainment.
I am no theatre critic, and this is not a review of the play. But all the same, I want to talk about what happens when you watch a two-hour play in which nothing happens, and happens very slowly.
The main character of The Water Station is a dripping tap. The main action is the dripping of the tap. And the main dialogue is the sound of the tap dripping. No plot. No story. No characters either — as in nobody with an identity or history. Was there a setting? Well, from what I could make out, the stage was supposedly a barren landscape where there is nothing save this dripping tap, and some junk.
Random people (yes, the play does have people in it!) walk around the tap, get wet, walk around the tap, roll on the floor, walk around the tap, drink water, walk around the tap, make faces, walk around the tap, and go off stage.
But that’s not all. The most striking, anti-sexy feature of the performance cannot be described, only experienced: it’s utter, infinite, excruciating, slowness. In the opening sequence, for instance, a girl takes 25 minutes to walk from one end of the stage to the water tap, a distance that an ageing, arthritic snail with a heart problem would cover in not more than 10 minutes.
Even the most casual of physical movements, like turning your head, is premeditated, stretched out, and imbued with the calibrated poise of a sky walker doing a hand-stand on a bicycle hundred meters from the ground.
My wife, who I had taken along, nodded off on my shoulder five minutes into the show. She woke up when somebody in the audience sneezed.
“Did I miss anything?” she asked, stifling a yawn, not very successfully.
“The girl was there when you dozed off. Now she’s reached here.” She promptly closed her eyes. She wasn’t alone in taking advantage of the silence and the darkness to take a power nap. A few walked out midway.
As we shuffled out of the auditorium after it was over, I overheard a girl complain, “This was just a social experiment to demonstrate that people can be fooled into believing they were intelligent enough to see the emperor’s new clothes. Only, nobody would dare admit he was wearing no clothes, and this was no theatre. What a scam!”
So, was it really a scam? Of course, that is one more ‘interpretation’ of the performance, and cannot be dismissed outright. At any rate, it does illuminate our expectations when we pay money to go watch a ‘show’. The foremost of these expectations is the sense that we are entitled to ‘being entertained.’
‘Being entertained’ means that for two hours, you forget that you are an overweight slob, have a sadistic boss, and the last date for paying your electricity bill was yesterday. The Water Station lops off the ‘entertainment’ bit and offers you just ‘being’. It takes your expectation to be entertained, shreds it to a thousand little pieces, and flings it back at your face.
If you can surrender yourself to this process, a process that would last all of 7,200 seconds, wherein every second will be made to pause, step forward, and shake hands with you before retreating gently back into the seamless flow of time, if you can sit through this dramatic encounter between time and self till the very end, you might just come away with a glimpse of something alive, something that comes to life only when entertainment is either transcended or suspended.
The Water Station, conceived by the late Japanese playwright Shogo Ohta, is a choreographed rebellion against the tyranny of time as a cultural construct (as opposed to an effect of nature); it rebels against the tyranny of narrative, against the dictatorship of words, and against the passivity induced in an audience seeking entertainment and all its familiar referents.
But most tellingly, with its relentless slowness, it forces us to confront the reality of how civilisation has enslaved us to speed, and how the leisurely, natural rhythms of life have been surrendered to the speeded-up, artificial timelines of production and consumption. As you sit there in the darkness, restless and befuddled, but impatient to consume the performance and move on, you almost yell at the actors to “Get on with it already!”
However, by privileging stillness over moving on, The Water Station makes you confront this internalised consumerist reflex of moving on — to the next thing to be consumed or produced. Its aesthetics of nothingness and silence is an implicit critique of a culture whose presiding logic is ‘what next?’ The performance forces you to stay in the present, where nothing happens, nothing needs to be done, and all you need is to be. That’s whyThe Water Station is theatre that is as difficult to experience as it is rewarding to have experienced.