Motley’s productions are obviously popular, if the full house is anything to go by. But reviving a two-and-a-half hour production with a young cast, most of whom has little stage experience, isn’t easy. It is unsurprising then that the characters on whom the play primarily rests are seasoned actors. Ankur Vikal excels as Queeg, the obsessive and eventually neurotic Commander of the USS Caine. Naseeruddin Shah, as the prosecution lawyer John Challee, is, as expected, brilliant. But it is Kenny Desai (as the defence lawyer Barney Greenwald) who steals the show.
A courtroom drama breaks the third wall in an obvious way—the audience is at once the audience that is witnessing the trial, acting out its part by laughing and gasping on cue. Prithvi’s pit arrangement and intimate seating makes it even more real. We silently root for the simple, well-intentioned Steve Maryck who is on trial. We perceive the unorthodox game that Greenwald is playing. We laugh at the bumbling young signalman Junius Urban, even at the stenographer who runs through the oath like he were reading the rider (‘Offer documents are subject to market risks…’) in an investment ad.
We also seem to think we know how to react to Queeg, the control-freak who obsesses about everything—from the sailors’ uniforms to the trifle of missing strawberries. He’s a character we’ve met in real life—the harsh boss who easily loses his temper, the teacher who gets easily provoked. He’s the man you make fun of, give nicknames, without sparing a thought about what makes him so.
Queeg is what he is because of circumstances—because of war. His deranged state is a study of how war distorts human psyche. The line between the hero and the villain are blurred as we go beyond the scope of the court to the climax in a second act. This is where the play reverses; where Greenwald reveals all by stripping the self-aggrandising author of his high-moral mask. Desai manages to stun the audience, eliciting a silence that is palpable. Rarely does a play manage that. And therein lies the brilliance of Caine-Mutiny.