Prayas Theatre Company returns to TAPAC with their production of The Clay Cart.
The play opens with a meta twist; on stage the Prayas ensemble are rehearsing their own production of The Clay Cart, ready to bring this classic in Indian theatre to the New Zealand stage for the first time.
However, it’s no simple task. The cast is struggling with the historical context of the content as they deliberate how exactly do you bring a Sanskrit play from the fifth century to modern audiences? Even calling the play by its original Sanskit name, Mricchakatika, is under contention. The show’s director, Dutta (Rishabh Kapoor) ultimately changes it to its translation The Clay Cart, so that audiences will find it easier to understand.
The play cleverly utilises the character Sandeep (Jehangir Homavazir), who later takes on the role of The Clay Cart’s antagonist, Sristhanaka. Through his interactions with other castmates, the character makes poignant observations about how South Asia is portrayed in the media and explores the challenges of performing a South Asian play in New Zealand.
On stage, the rehearsal eventually commences, and as the characters take their assigned roles the Prayas ensemble truly comes alive in their retelling of The Clay Cart. At the centre is a love story between the poor but honourable merchant, Charudatta (Rishabh Kapoor), and the wealthy courtesan, Vasantasena (Ruchika Tandon). Their romance is interwoven with the humorous everyday events of the people around them — the gambler turned monk, the do-gooder thief — while more political and sinister subplots also unfold.
The extensive range of characters provides each member of the ensemble with an opportunity to stand out and shine — all infusing zest and spark into each small role they play. When not engaged in speaking roles, the ensemble transforms into the trees, the walls, the houses, fully utilising the language of body and movement to breathe life into the stage.
The Clay Cart had so many captivating and charming elements, which is why it was so disheartening to have it undermined by the additional material that was added to the original script.
There is clear inspiration from Silo Theatre’s Prime Time Asian Sitcom, which uses a similar framing device to engage in a discourse of Asian representation on stage in and in media. However, in this case I wish Prayas Theatre had trusted their audience and brought The Clay Cart to the stage for critique rather than preemptively offering criticism themselves.
The story within the framing device employs compelling components to develop the play’s subtext. Notably, swapping the genders of the magistrates to all women raised questions about historical gender roles, while incorporating a speech from a real-world political activist effectively highlighted issues of injustice. Instead of confining themselves to a framing device, the play could increase its impact by further refining and developing various theatrical and production elements. For example, incorporating fourth wall breaks to engage the audience on the more unrealistic story beats of The Clay Cart.
My, and my companion’s, biggest concern was with the lack of care the ‘real world’ story showed when raising questions on gender roles in the original text of The Clay Cart. Firsty, Dutta calls The Clay Cart ‘anti-feminist’ and while it does depict historical attitudes towards women, this is an inaccurate use of this label. Secondly, the ‘real world’ story includes vague allegations made against Dutta by female students and does not explore them or resolve them at the end of the play. Lastly, quoting Trump’s remarks on his sexual assault on women verbatim felt unnecessary and was a poor attempt to address the oppression and misogyny that still exists for women today.
It was also perplexing to have the play close with the conclusion of The Clay Cart text, but not bookend the production by returning to the framing device. Half the audience was still left waiting for a final ending when the lights came on and people were leaving.
Prayas Theatre has a lot to offer the Auckland Theatre community; the story within The Clay Cart is delightful, insightful, and worthy of 21st century critique – it possesses enough merit to warrant seeing this latest Prayas production on its own.
The Clay Cart plays at TAPAC from the 29th of November to the 8th of December 2023