If one were to go by the catchy social media campaign being run by Q Theatre Productions (QTP) for their new outing Every Brilliant Thing, one would perhaps not be mistaken into thinking a rollicking fun evening was in store for audiences. Both director Quasar Thakore Padamsee and performer Vivek Madan — it’s an intrepid one-man show — have been wit personified as they post pithy missives from a seemingly bottomless list of every conceivable life-affirming moment from their own lives, in keeping with the play’s sun-kissed title. Indeed, ‘comedy’ might well be one of the play’s descriptors, but that would only just about scratch the surface. “It’s the actual topic we’re dealing with that is so much more compelling. Depression is something that, bloody hell, nobody even wants to talk about,” says Padamsee, of the play’s graver underpinnings. The director, possibly one of the true empaths in the theatre business, had discerned of late that mental illness was much more widespread than he had ever imagined, and this was further borne out during the making of this production.
The big picture
The play, written by Duncan MacMillan, doesn’t wear its agenda on its sleeve, which is its strong suit, according to Padamsee. “We gain much more insight about an issue or a struggle, when it’s seen in a larger everyday context, rather than when it is just highlighted or underlined,” he explains. One is reminded of O’Henry’s quote, “A good story is like a bitter pill, with the sugar coating inside of it.” QTP’s staging comes close at the heels of several international runs — it’s been staged over 600 times over four continents. This includes British comedian Jonny Donahoe’s long stint with the production. Such was his contribution as a co-creator that the Oberon Books edition (from 2015) acknowledges it on the cover sleeve, and an HBO film was made on Donahoe’s performance of the play at New York’s off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre.
The play is hugely interactive and the participation of the audience creates the piece as it proceeds. “We spent a lot of time in rehearsals fixing the different trajectories the play could travel along, with each path having its own consequences,” says Padamsee. QTP’s recent production of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit also involved extensive audience interaction, and in recent years, Padamsee has been closely involved with the Indian tours of theatre-makers like Daniel Bye or Tim Crouch. “In their shows, they know what’s happening and the audience doesn’t — that kind of table tennis is very exciting for me,” he adds. These influences perhaps prepared the ground for Every Brilliant Thing, which is equally cutting-edge in terms of the innovative manner in which personal stories are recounted.
Although Padamsee had known Madan from the very beginning of his professional career, this collaboration was revelatory because of what the actor brought on board as a theatre director himself. “He can take a call in-performance, making a value judgement about what could be dramatically better or not, not in terms of an actor’s impulse, but because he understands the graph of the play. To be honest, I didn’t realise that until this week,” says Padamsee, who was looking to work outside his regular pool of actors in Mumbai for this particular project.
Madan is usually based out of Bengaluru, but like many travel-friendly actors these days, moonlights from one inter-city project to another. The play demands that it is transferred into the locale and milieu of whichever country it’s performing in, so this Indian version will have a flavour unique to itself. However, Padamsee was clear about preserving the cultural bearing of the writing, “Even actors fluent in English might not understand the idiom of a particular piece of writing. I did not want to disturb the rhythm of the language, and wanted someone who got it instinctively.” Madan certainly fit the bill on that count.
Every Brilliant Thing is being staged at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu until March 21; more details at bookmyshow.com