Considered by many – justifiably or not – as the rainbow nation, Mauritius thrives on its multilingualism and pluriculturalism, assets that are most often reflected via its diverse art forms: songs, dance, music (in a variety of languages). The question that needs to be asked right at the outset then is: ‘where do we place theatre as a tradition in the country vis-à-vis the other art forms?’ A yearly national drama festival (again, in the different languages) with sparse local quality productions (mainly in French and especially Creole), speaks volumes of the fact that the theatre tradition in the country has, like many other countries, not met with an enthusiastic response. In fact, the failure of this festival to contribute to long-term endeavours in support of the theatre has been highlighted as early as 1980 in a UNESCO report by a foreign theatre consultant. The report particularly underscored the fact that groups are often set up for the sole purpose of participating in the competition and once the event is over, these groups disband and fall into oblivion.
It is in this context that the production of ‘A View from the Bridge’ needs to be situated. We were not only faced with the dilemma of staging a play – we were faced with the arduous task of putting up a play in English and that too, a play that people knew little about, a dramatist that only a handful had ever heard of and a socio-historical/cultural context that is extremely remote from our reality as islanders. There were reservations as to whether the play, essentially because of the language barrier, would appeal to the audience. Yet, the decision to stage the play was irreversible the moment financial support (the prime sponsor being the US Embassy, while the Mauritius Institute of Education also chipped in) was given for several reasons.
The production had a twin objective – both artistic and pedagogical. It would, we felt, contribute to a very large extent to the cultural scene in the country and our production was also a way to remember the playwright five years after his death, who remains largely unknown in Mauritius. More significantly, ‘A View from the Bridge’ is a text studied by some 500 students of Higher School Certificate in Mauritius. The play, therefore, was an opportunity to promote a more active approach to the teaching of literature and drama especially, given that the methodology of both drama and literature is often – mistakenly – limited to the way novels are taught. The transition from page to stage for the student is most crucial, with a production depicting certain nuances and interpretation of the text that not only facilitates understanding but that also allows the student to raise a number of questions in relation to the production and the text. However, as is the case for many student shows, there were frequent disturbances during some performances. Thankfully though, good sense prevailed overall. This, we feel, goes a long way to show that theatre is still a medium to which our youngsters are not used to and this, ironically, can only be addressed with more exposure. Perhaps.
While there was a deliberate attempt to be as faithful as possible to the text, this has not been entirely possible because of reasons that would have weighed against the production requirements. As a result, the cast was reduced to a manageable seven, with actors doubling up roles, keeping in mind also the theme of betrayal in the text. We also stood by our choice of not using a Brooklyn-based accent because we felt the play cannot be culturally bound, given that Mauritius itself is viewed by many as the Eldorado where dreams can begin to take shape for immigrants. In many other respects, however, authenticity has been retained, essentially via costumes and sets. Some liberties were taken with music, with a blend of period and contemporary items, to denote the constant shift between present and past, and also to reinforce the fact that the play cannot be bound by time. In what was also an endeavour to bring in an experimental touch to a realistic play – the sets and the acting space changed as the play progressed and the fight sequences took place around the audience to enhance the dramatic tension in the play. This closeness to the action, we felt, would serve the play better by building towards a more gripping climax. It also allowed us to move away from traditional stage conventions – typical of local productions – and to adapt ourselves to the limitations of the hall in which we were performing.
What needs to be highlighted is also the fact that our actors were mainly teachers (primary and secondary school) with hardly any prior training in acting. Given the funds received, it could have been an easier task to pick regular stage artists. However, with a pedagogical goal in mind, the decision was taken to train teachers who showed interest in drama. The training sessions would in turn empower them to use drama as a tool or simply in the form of workshops at classroom/school level, be it for the teaching of literature or, ideally, for any cross-curricular activity. The rehearsal process took longer than we would have thought but five months proved adequate enough for mastering the necessary acting skills and the confidence to perform. The first three months of rehearsals included voice projection, improvisation and detailed character work (facilitated by the fact that this was a realistic play) and the next couple of months were dedicated to blocking of scenes: a meticulous process, which paid dividends. Much character work was left open to the actor’s interpretation, although this was set within the broader picture of the play. Interestingly, in spite the difficulties expressed at different instances by actors, it all seemed to fall into place during the last three weeks.
The play was well-received and met with favourable reviews in the press. As a new theatre group on the local scene taking up the challenge of putting up a play in English, the satisfaction lay in pulling it off and this was duly recognised in the reviews. And yet, as all productions, we still feel there were major areas for improvement, starting with delivery and pacing of dialogues. But then, we could not have asked for a better start.