May Issue 2016

By | Theatre | Published 2 years ago

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The haunting notes of Ella Fitzgerald and Satchmo’s “Summertime” floated into the night sky, the lights went up and against a photographic backdrop of two young children, Rehana Saigol and Imran Aslam brought Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III to life. Once again.

These two veteran actors had performed Love Letters 23 years ago, also directed by Hameed Haroon. This time round their performances were perhaps even better, the years adding a subtle poignancy to their performance. It is no mean feat to act with no props, no scene changes, nothing except one’s own voice to hold the audience captive for over two hours.

The story is a simple one. The bohemian, free-spirited and uber rich Melissa Gardner and a staid, politically correct Andrew Makepeace Ladd III exchange letters spanning 50 years, laying their lives bare, moving inexorably towards a tragic end. Best friends, non-lovers (except for one night), these two New England characters move through their orchestrated lives, hardly meeting, yet more intimate than most married couples. Love Letters is a marvellous, slow, unravelling of the lives of two people who realise far too late how much they meant to each other. It is a tale of lost youth, lost love and lost opportunities.

Those who know the indefatigable Hameed Haroon know he is a perfectionist who will relentlessly pursue whatever he wants to achieve with an untiring dedication. After a hiatus of 23 years, Hameed returned to the theatre with the same play, but introduced two new, innovative, and avant-garde elements: music and changing photographic backdrops.

And what a brilliant selection of music it was — “Summertime,” Marilyn Monroe’s “I Wanna be Loved by You,” the inimitable Eartha Kitt’s, “Let’s Do It,” ending with Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never.” Twenty-four evocative numbers that captured both the time and the mood. But then one would expect no less from The Red Baron!

Maestro photographer, Arif Mehmood’s changing black and white portraits softened, and not only added a moving personal touch to an otherwise stark and severe stage, but also grounded the performance into the local milieu. As did the locale: the always magical Mohatta Palace Museum. An inspired touch was the comfortable sofa seating. Kudos to the sound team — crystal clear sound in an outdoor setting.

And now for the heart-stirring performances by Rehana Saigol and Imran Aslam, who in this production don’t even sit side by side, but at either end of the stage. The chemistry between them never falters, though they never interact, not even by a glance. Under Hameed’s sensitive and skillful direction, the spell between them is never broken. For over two hours, they act out a kaleidoscope of emotions that reflect not just their own lives, but also the social mores of the time.

It comes as a bit of a shock for today’s audiences to hear Melissa’s cavalier dismissal of her stepfather’s molestation: “He used to bother me in bed.” And Andy’s non-reaction to this. Today, this would have been given pivotal importance. Rehana has the meatier, more colourful, role and she morphs effortlessly from a spoilt young schoolgirl to a feisty, flirtatious young woman. However, she is at her best as the aging, desperate, alcoholic Melissa — alone, estranged from her children, writing to the one constant in her life — Andy.

He is the perfect foil for the free-spirited Melissa and Imran captures Andy’s stodgy, stifled middle-class mindset and ambition with a perfectly contained performance. It is only in Andy’s last letter of all, to Melissa’s mother after Melissa’s death, that the stoic always-in-control Andy breaks down, finally realising his passionate love and dependence on Melissa.

It was a masterful performance. And one that perhaps brought back forgotten memories of our own… of the trysts with destiny, that all of us, in some way or another, have missed.