First, the very name of the company comes from a quote by George Bernard Shaw from his 1921 play, Back to Methuselah. “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” Second, Dear Liar is a play culled from the 40-year correspondence between GBS and the great actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Third, the umbrella name for the event is Beyond Bollywood because Dear Liar is performed by revered Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah and his wife Ratna Pathak Shah. Fourth, co-producer/artistic director Ravi Jain is of South Asian descent. In other words, the GBS/Bollywood connection has provenance.
The late American actor/writer Jerome Kilty wrote the two-hander Dear Liar in 1960. While most of the play has the characters speaking text from their letters, they do, from time to time, add in narration to set the scene. The play is filled with GBS’s witticisms, but Mrs. Pat holds her own. The uncredited set comprises two windows behind which are hidden the necessary props. In front are a table and various chairs. The late director Satyadev Dubey gives the two just enough stage business to stop the play from becoming a wall of words. The uncredited costumes are two-fold. The two are garbed in formal wear in the first act, which ends with a 49-year old Mrs. Pat’s triumph as the original Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion in 1914. They are dressed more casually in the second act, which includes GBS’s famous belted country jacket.
Shah is apparently as active with his Motley Theatre Group as he is with Bollywood movie-making. Obviously, the couple has performed the play in India, but opening night found the pacing slow, particularly in Pathak’s case. This did not stop the production from being an absolute charmer. In an age when letter writing was an art. GBS and Mrs. Pat were grand masters of the words. Shaw was deeply in love with the actress (“Stella”), and she was certainly smitten with him (“Joey”), despite the fact that Shaw, and later Campbell, were married to other people. Because their letters convey intense intimacy as well as brilliant repartee, the actors have a lot to chew on.
Shah’s performance is simply remarkable. He manages to weave GBS’s one-line zingers neatly into the conversation. Rather than being trapped on a one note, wit-and-wisdom characterization, he shapes his delivery to capture the emotional level. It would have been so easy to make Shaw a superficial player of words, but a deeper character does emerge in Shah’s skilful hands. In fact, he is downright lovable. For her part, Pathak runs the gamut from coy, to siren, to victim, to survivor wearing her heart on her sleeve. Her Mrs. Pat is capable of great grief – when she writes, for example, of her son Beo’s death in the first world war. Pathak’s attempts to find Eliza’s cockney accent seem a bit forced, but they are amusing. Both actors manage the aging very well. Shah’s sparkling, crisp performance may drive the production, but Pathak deftly rides his tail wind.
Dear Liar christens the theatre at the new Daniels Spectrum, aka the Regent Park Arts & Culture Centre. The Diamond & Schmitt designed building looks more like an office block than an arts complex. While I understand the concept of Spectrum, it doesn’t say theatre, so first timers are going to have trouble finding it. The halls are very institutional. The theatre looks like it has great possibilities, although the banked seating (which is quite comfortable and roomy) seems quite far from the stage. (Rows of individual chairs filled in the space.) The actual stage seems small, although the acoustics are excellent. In fact, Shah and Pathak can teach some Canadian actors about excellent diction. Over all, I think the jury is out on the Spectrum until it gets a few more productions under its belt.
Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar, (starring Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, directed by Satyadev Dubey), Why Not Theatre, Sept. 28 to 31, 2012.
(Shah, Pathak and daughter Heeba Shah perform Ismat Chughtai’s Ismat Apa Ke Naam, in Urdu with English surtitles, Oct. 5 to 7, 2012.)