Theatre review: Girish Karnad's Flowers begins afresh but droops at the end
Rage Theatre and Ranga Shankara (India)
Esplanade Theatre Studio/Tuesday
A devout priest has dedicated his life to the worship and care of a temple's stone lingam, the representation of the Hindu god Shiva. He is exacting and gifted at his work, particularly skilled in the use of flowers as an offering to the god.
But then he catches a glimpse of an excruciatingly beautiful courtesan and in an instant, his life is thrown into disarray.
Flowers, written by the well-known Indian playwright Girish Karnad, premiered in 2006 at Bangalore's Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival. The one-man show made its debut in Singapore as part of the Esplanade's annual Indian festival of the arts, Kalaa Utsavam.
I will preface this review by stating first that I am approaching this work from the point of view of an outsider, one familiar with Karnad's work but who is also not an expert on the extensive corpus of work coming from the sub-continent, as well as its myriad cultures.
The 80-minute monologue reverberates with a quiet intensity, drawn out carefully by actor Rajit Kapur, who is arrestingly charismatic as the wayward priest.
With his marked physical control, Kapur cuts an illuminating figure despite the script's general sense of stasis; he barely moves from atop his perch, suspended almost magically above a stage strewn with petals by way of of a platform resembling a springboard.
It is the plot, adapted from a Chitradurga folktale, that I find both thought-provoking and problematic.
The unnamed priest eventually comes to view his lover, Chandravati, as a pinnacle of perfection and beauty, a goddess of sorts in his life, vying for that top spot where Shiva sits. His adultery is eventually discovered by the local chieftain, which leads to an ultimate test of devotion and, simultaneously, guilt.
There are intriguing questions that Karnad raises during the play as to gender identities and religious devotion. But I find it difficult to reconcile these with the concept he seems to provoke of woman as goddess, one who is deserving of worship - if the goddess he conjures has the depth of cardboard.
The only hint of Chandravati's personality, beyond her physical beauty, is a whiff of petulance in her demands for the priest's attention. Apart from that, she is reduced to an abstract form, a nubile "bed of flowers" on which the middle-aged priest can have his fill of sex.
The priest's wife, who is never given the privilege of a name, is the exact opposite: dull and conservative ("my wife would rather die of shame than be seen naked by herself"), until an odd 180-degree transformation happens without warning and decidedly out of character.
But even if one argues that Karnad is attempting to wrestle with certain chauvinisms that exist in the priesthood, he spends so much time revelling in the physicality of these illicit liaisons to the degree of distraction.
There is a level of discomfiture that is effective - taut enough to confront an audience and challenge their assumptions - and then there is a tipping point, when the portrayal of sex loses that powerful edge and turns from delightfully sensual to the mechanical sexual act, the subject of a one-way male gaze.
The women seem to be blank slates to be imprinted upon, and the misogyny is so distracting that it is difficult to keep track of the parable's actual moral dilemma, between god and man, and love and duty. The priest's spiritual revelation and the key to the folktale, on which the most time is spent, is hurried through in the play at a blazing pace compared to its lingering, lustful moments before.
Flowers begins with a freshness of intent, and there is just enough pathos to see the work through to the end, but by then, its proverbial flowers have begun to droop and fade.