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December 08, 2016

Theatre Review: Riding Madly Off In all Directions

Text by Alpana Chowdhury

Directed by Naseeruddin Shah, Motley’s latest production stages witty discourses on humour

If you’ve ever been a victim of boring uncles competing with one another at cracking jokes that are far from funny, then Naseeruddin Shah’s take on the late Stephen Leacock’s writings would be right up your alley. Enacted by a cast comprising his entire immediate family, Riding Madly Off In all Directions was the opening show at the annual Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai last month.

Dramatising essays written a century ago can be a formidable challenge, but the talented Shah family succeeded in doing so, in most parts. There was the youngest of the family, Vivaan, in a solo act on the agony of borrowing a matchbox from a man who insists he has one but can’t find it in any of his numerous pockets; and yet won’t let you go till he has meticulously turned all of them inside out!

His older brother Imaad plays the victim of card-conjuror Vivaan, who tries to show off his skill at pulling out ‘the right card’; but Imaad outwits him, by lying each time and saying that it is the wrong one. Funny and exasperating, the act has the two brothers playing a mischievous game of one-upmanship.

And then you have Heeba, Shah’s daughter, touchingly portraying an early 20th-century working-class, middle-aged, American lady trying to open a bank account, feeling quite rich with her 56-dollar increment. Her nervousness illustrates well what Leacock believed in — that humour should be blended with pathos till the two are one.
And, perhaps, only Leacock could find a subject for satire in dry mathematical questions. How long does it take for B to overtake A if B rows in two hours the distance that A rows in one hour? Or how long does it take C to fill up a leaking cistern?

Ratna Pathak Shah weaves a story around these absurd, abstract problems and invests A, B and C with emotions and passions illustrated through shadow play; and suddenly, maths becomes a human story of hard labour! Surely, no teacher ponders the cruelty of A digging for 48 hours….

The grand finale has Shah in the year 3000, painting a bleak picture of where science and development will take us. This is black humour at its most frightening.

A stimulating show, but one wonders how Leacock would have spoofed an audience that laughed not only at jokes but even in moments of serious contemplation….

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