Playing it Up

A performance of Machiavelli’s famed comedy, Mandragola, in Delhi makes for both insipid and inspired moments

01 October 2011
Callimaco and Ligurio persuade a confused Nicia.
The Doon School Old Boys Society
Callimaco and Ligurio persuade a confused Nicia.
The Doon School Old Boys Society

A tall, white cross rests on a sturdy looking pedestal. A large, orange wall looms from behind the structure. To either side are long, white panels dotted with several tiny, fluorescent-coloured squares. A delicately carved bench, chair and table, the kind you’d expect to find in a Parisian café, foreground this colourful and rather cramped cardboard set-up at India Habitat Centre’s Stein Auditorium in New Delhi. It is a balmy September evening and the venue is set to feature a performance of Niccolò Machiavelli’s famed comedy, Mandragola. Presented by the Doon School Old Boys Society (DSOBS) and performed by the alumni of the boys-only Doon School and Welham Girls School (who appear to insist on claiming the metonyms “Doscos” and “Exies”, respectively), the play is directed by Bikram Ghosh, a member of Delhi’s very own Tadpole Repertory. The Tadpole Repertory is, in their own words, “dedicated to presenting original writing and devised performances” that are relevant to modern audiences. Their independent production Taramandal is well-known for having won the MetroPlus Playwright Award 2010.

The programme notes placed on each seat carry a detailed synopsis of the plot. Machiavelli’s 16th-century farce tells the story of how a rich, young Florentine, Callimaco, returns from Paris to win over one of Florence’s most beautiful and virtuous women, Lucrezia—who also happens to be the wife of a foolish old lawyer named Nicia. Ligurio, a cunning marriage broker, helps Callimaco by exploiting Nicia’s fervent longing for an heir; he tells Nicia that the only way for Lucrezia to conceive is for her to drink the aphrodisiac named mandragola but that the first man to sleep with her will die from the effects of the drug. Combined with the persuasive powers of Lucrezia’s unscrupulous mother Sostrata and Lucrezia’s confessor—a corrupt priest named Timotea—the play snowballs into an entertaining albeit slightly disconcerting climax.

Twenty minutes after the scheduled time, the performance is about to begin; Kishore Lahiri, the president of DSOBS, is flustered when he admits that they’re running on “DST”, Delhi Standard Time. Before the performance, he offers a vote of thanks and amusingly refers to it as merely a “presentation”. But as the evening wears on, the word appears more appropriate: rather than an attempt to shape the current face of Indian theatre or to examine Machiavelli’s plays, the evening looks to be an endeavour to convene alumni of the Doon School and Welham Girls School and the people associated with them in order to preserve ties between the institutions.

Sharanya  is reading for a PhD in drama and anthropology from the University of Exeter. She was formerly an intern at The Caravan.

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