Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a featured interview with actress and director Ratna Pathak Shah. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Ratna Pathak Shah, as her name implies, is a gem to converse with. Coming to Singapore on 18 Feb, she is performing in “Dear Liar”, a play based on the 40-year correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs Campbell. The Irish playwright, Shaw is one of the greatest wits and playwrights of the twentieth century. Mrs Campbell, a singularly sought out actress, is no less comparable in stature, skill or temperament. This version, directed by the late Satyadev Dubey, has been performed since 2005. I confess, when I first heard her over the phone, I had an unnerving moment. It was almost impossible for me to connect her soft tones with one of my favourite on-screen mothers, the ahimsa embracing liberal Savitri (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na), let alone make the leap to connect her with one of my least favourite moms, Maya Sarabhai (Sarabhai vs Sarabhai), a snooty, pretentious personification of the saccharine yet snide mother in law. Pathak Shah leaves the exaggerated rowdy charm to her characters. Personally, she charms with her reserve and soft voice. Elegantly expressive, she pauses before every response, thoughtfully delivering them with crispness and restraint. It is clear that she is absorbing the essence of the question before answering and while words occasionally trip from her, it comes from eager passion, never feeling impulsive or ill-considered. Nothing less than what you would expect from someone who boasts a family steeped in theatre. Her quiet unhurried manner is catching, and I find myself slowing down, enjoying her responses laced with amusement.
Tell us why we simply must watch Dear Liar?
Because it is an extremely entertaining conversation between two extremely intelligent people with superb turns of phrases. It is very rare that you have a conversation that goes so cleverly and smoothly! In a two hour piece, it’s really hard to find moments that don’t live up to the promise of the first half. It is wonderful how the gentleman, who written the play, Jerome Kilty has managed to capture the spirit of both George Bernard Shaw and Sarah Patrick Campbell. Mrs Campbell, of course, is less known and therefore the most surprising of the package. Most of us have come across Shaw if we had anything to do with English. But Mrs Campbell is a true revelation. I mean, what a woman! In the early part of the last century, she was a huge actress and took to it completely. She was so crazy; so sure of herself, a diva in every way possible. And she met up with a guy like Shaw. The richness of the conversation, to me, is truly the most exciting thing about this play.
Give us a quick peek into these exciting conversations?
Oh, these are conversations about plays, how to put together productions, the real issues that crop up when you are in a play, the egos that operate in such situations. It’s full of all these details, and then, of course, it talks about what is happening in the world around us [like] the First World War; Mrs Campbell died just when the Second world war was starting. In the first war they lived through, Mrs Campbell lost her son. It is extraordinarily moving and passionate about the times, on how artists feel conflicted in their response to events that take place around them.
Why did you want to be part of this play?
*pause* Because, I’d be stupid if I wasn’t a part of it! What a part it is for any actress, I’d be a dummy if I said no to something like that. I’m just blessed that I was offered this. It was all Satyadev Dubey and I have really never stop thanking him for doing so. It is a huge step forward for me as actress.
It’s interesting you bring up the late Satyadev Dubey. I understand the play is being done exactly as he had first directed – do you view this as a tribute?
Not really. Dubey had an extraordinary ability to stage things so that they could come alive. This play is really hard because there are no scenes, no plot. The plot is projected, rather than delineated. It is difficult to make these scenes come together, and make them work for an audience. I thought Dubey did an remarkable job with a very simple set. And then he let everyone riff off each other. That’s what made the play work the first time, even before we got our acts together. We’ve lived with this play for a very long time. Right at the beginning we thought we were wonderful and everyone told us we were wonderful. As we have grown older with the play, we have realised how “not- wonderful” we were and how much more work needed to be done. So we just continue to work on it even after Dubey’s death. It’s not change really, it’s development we have undergone as actors and as a production. Dubey was happy with the play, of course, he was always critical about something or other – that’s just Dubey! I think we were very much in sync with what he was trying to do and feel that we have enhanced his vision. We were lucky that we got a chance.
How long has this play been performed?
Oh, very long. I’ve forgotten. Probably, at least from 2005. We had one version before, which lasted quite a few years but that was mainly for private audiences. It didn’t do well or travel because, well, we got busy with other things. We came back to Dear Liar, in fact after we did a production of Julius Caeser, with a cast of over 70, and we just thought “My god, we’ve got to do something small!” because we can’t deal with all these numbers and all the complexities that come with them. We thought why not, “Dear Liar”. And we were very relieved to have done that. We had grown and audiences also had grown.
You mentioned that everyone thought you were wonderful and then you decided maybe you weren’t that wonderful. What would be the difference if someone watched this play at the beginning compared to watching it now?
It’s an internal journey rather than an external thing. We are just much more fluent with the language; we are more fluent with what we are supposed to be doing. Those are the visible changes but you know, it’s really the way we have developed as human beings, as actors, that has reflected in this play. In the early days, we used to have to play old. Now we have to play young! It’s really quite a challenge: how do you do at the age of 60, talk about a 39 year old and portray her. That too, a 39 year old woman who is playing a 16 year old girl in Pygmalion. (Mrs. Campbell was about 40 when Shaw approached her) She had to struggle with that, which is part of the play as well. When I first started, I was struggling with it the other way around. I’m struggling to portray the older woman and get that right. Now, I’m trying to play the younger Mrs Campbell and make her believable and interesting!
Is Dear Liar one of your favourite pieces of literature?
Oh, it is. If you want me to choose from all of Shaw, there are many other things which I also find very exciting. But, “Dear Liar”, somehow encapsulates Shaw the man, the writer, the one who’s struggling with all kinds of issues in a much more human way. His plays reflect more on his politics, social concerns and his concerns with language and art. But the man, most of us do not know terribly well, “Dear Liar” gives you a chance to look at that.
What do you hope audiences take away from this play when the curtains close
It’s hard to quantify. It’s hard to say that this is what they should be thinking about. An audience is a live entity which means you cannot manipulate them beyond a point. That is what is so fabulous about theater. The audience makes up its own mind because really, the actors and the audience are relating to each other in a common shared experience. It is more visceral way than any other art form. Everyone is going home with different things. But, as far as we’re concerned, we can communicate that people with such intelligence, with such humour, with such facility of language and depth of thought, existed in the world. We are blessed that they went before us. We should stand on their shoulders and look forward. At the moment I’m not sure we are doing that; new plays and new work are not yet of this quality, which Shaw and many like him brought to their work. If people get excited by the play and want to read more Shaw or see a play written by Shaw, that would be a good first. We are hoping to speak to young people because really, they are the ones who respond most openly and most excited to good ideas.
As we wind down the conversation, I can’t help but be reminded of a mischievous anecdote involving Shaw. Once upon a time, Shaw had ticked off one of his journalistic contemporaries, who covered the goings on of notable celebrities. The following day, he was to have covered Shaw’s grand opening and this was the result. “Mrs Shaw arrived at the theatre. She was decked in a beautiful floor length fur coat, diamonds sparkled in her ears and throat and she simply looked divine. She was seen frittering the evening away with a certain Mrs S, and was talking to the young misses Miss X and Miss Y. It was fascinating that she was studiously avoiding any contact with a certain Mr T. In the interval, she was flirting prettily with the elderly Mr F and after the play, left immediately. And with her, throughout, was a Mr George Bernard Shaw” So, I do hope that you take the time to also appreciate Pathak Shah’s husband, who plays Mr Shaw. You might have heard of him, this one Mr Naseeruddin Shah? Dear Liar, brought to you by S & R Dance Events is playing in theatres on 18 February 2017. Tickets are available through Sistic.