Portraying mental illness onscreen is difficult enough; to do it onstage is a tightrope. Underplaying it is not an option: this is theatre and you don’t have the luxury of lingering close-ups that will capture every muscle, every twitch on your face. But with something like schizophrenia, the mood swings are bound to be abrupt and the actor, therefore, runs the risk of what Robert Downey Jr. called “going full retard” in Tropic Thunder (we would have used a term more politically correct than that, but the nail is hammered alright). Last Saturday, Sarthak Mattoo, playing a schizophrenic man on the eve of his long-awaited release from a sanatorium, got the balance right, in a play called Crimson, performed at Delhi’s Alliance Française.
Crimson, written and directed by Debontika Das and Pallav Chander, was a short and crisp play, with a running time of just over an hour. Das is a psychology student, which undoubtedly helped with the dialogues for Mattoo’s character and the atmosphere of the story, which was structured as a three-act tragedy, with very brief sections buttoning it at the beginning and at the end.
The story begins with the schizophrenic recounting the series of events that led to him being restrained and taken away to the sanatorium. The dialogues here are very cleverly written: on one level, they could be read as the description of something grisly but unspecified. But the ambiguity of sentences like “I couldn’t finish what I started that night” also refers constantly to the state of in-betweenness that is the bane of the mentally ill. Whether it’s bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any one of the half a dozen kinds of mental illness that have overlapping symptoms, the patient undergoes what might be termed an existential search, for a treasured object or person.
Crimson, written and directed by Debontika Das and Pallav Chander, was a short and crisp play, with a running time of just over an hour. Das is a psychology student, which undoubtedly helped with the dialogues for Mattoo’s character.
In Crimson, this is the schizophrenic’s lover, played by Shaik Sheeba. When Sheeba’s character describes the early days of their relationship, the genesis of the man’s descent into mental illness is spelt out clearly. At one point, she says, “You wanted a shadow, not a lover.” In a spirited monologue, Sheeba brings out her character’s consuming guilt and anguish, the pain of a woman who waited for more than a decade (for a phone call, a letter, a sign) with nothing to show for her efforts. Slowly, she begins to hate herself for still harbouring feelings for a man who never treated her all that well in the first place. In the middle of a monologue, there was a slightly loud message notification on an audience member’s phone, just when Sheeba was working her way into a bit of frenzy. This led to a nifty bit of fourth-wall improvisation; she yelled: “Who the f**k has their phone on? I’m trying to f***ing talk here!”
Other memorable moments include Mattoo’s harrowing monologue about how a sanatorium guard peed on him, and a delightful cameo by Milind Tyagi, who plays the schizophrenic’s doctor. Crimson could have done with a longer epilogue, with the loose ends of the plot being tied up slightly better. But on the whole, it was a superbly acted and entertaining play.