This Arcadian Adventure Isn’t A Literary Lapse

The theatrical presentation of the writings of Stephen Leacock, the British-born, Canadian political scientist and humourist is entertaining and engaging.

Riding Madly Off In All Directions
Starring:
Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Imaad, Heeba and Vivaan.
Dir by Naseeruddin Shah.
Rating: ***

Riding Madly Off In All Directions, the opening play at the Prithvi Festival does what the title suggests and some more. With Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna, Vivaan, Imaad, and Heeba in performance, the theatrical presentation of the writings of Stephen Leacock, the British-born, Canadian political scientist and humourist (1869-1944)—who was requested by none other than Charlie Chaplin to write a script—is entertaining and engaging.

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“Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it,” comes up on the screen as an example of Leacock’s wit. It’s difficult to depict humour not written for stage per se, and Leacock never wrote a play, but when the writing puts its finger on universal eccentricities and fallacies such as fumbling in banks, fear of arithmetic, impact of violent nursery rhymes and children’s literature, it’s hard not to react.

It starts with a disclaimer about Leacock’s unpalatable views about women and race and the value of his other writings. Ratna and Heeba discuss types of humour (“humour as I see it is humour without harm”) and Imaad and Vivaan demonstrate some. Along with projection screens that lists different pieces of Leacock, the family is on its way to capture the essence of those writings. They are all dressed in 19th century costumes and the minimal set design lends easily to changes in scenes, though it takes some getting-used-to to the structure.

Of the different episodes, if we can call it that, the ones that stand out are Heeba’s depiction of a common woman trying to deposit $56 in a bank; Vivaan’s enacting of a conjurer whose tricks are spoilt by a pesky spectator and the longish one on arithmetic by Ratna and shadows of the letters A, B and C. For those acquainted with Marathi literature, some of these might remind you of writings of P.L. Deshpande, only accentuating the point that humour in ordinary lives is perhaps truly universal.

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While the first half focuses on light-hearted observations about human life, the second half has Naseer depicting a 3000 AD world that Leacock envisaged. The solo act, peppered with funny moments, turns into a disturbing vision of a world where man has conquered hunger, weather, work and even nature itself. Needless to say, Naseer pulls off this funny-dark act dressed in an all-grey costume.

Naseeruddin Shah has staged literature before, like short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai and writings of Krishan Chander, apart from a play about life of Albert Einstein. In that sense, he is best equipped to stage the works of a prominent writer not in the public domain anymore. There are some bits about Leacock too, but the focus is on his writing—“essays and ruminations”.

It’s a fitting tribute to the man who gave us these wonderful lines, which are now part of our expression: “He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions”.

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