No sin goes unpunished.
Way back in the ’60s, M K Narayanan’s Marma Medai was a Tamil radio play series that dramatised thrilling mysteries, often with stone cold killers and grisly murders. As the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads, and these dark plays found massive popularity back in the day, complete with chilling sound effects, and the ability to invoke fear in all who dared listen.
Though the original plays have been off the air for decades now, in an era where we look to past for inspiration so often, the Esplanade has brought Marma Medai back in a new form, with Theerppu (The Judgement). Playing as part of the 2021 Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts, writer/director Grace Kalaiselvi has selected five characters from the almost 120 plays written by Narayanan, and reimagined them in a brand new storyline for stage.
The play opens as four strangers (Gayathri Segaran, Indumathi Tamilselvan, Karthikeyan Somasundaram, and Pramila D/O Krishnasamy) wake up in a room with no exit. All dressed in similar red tops and black pants, they know nothing of each other, and cannot recall how they arrived at this place. As the space warps and changes, threatening to inflict pain and torture on them, they begin to reveal their hidden truths to each other, each one more horrifying than the last.
Anyone familiar with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) is likely to realise that Theerppu‘s setting bears a striking similarity, and has trapped its characters in some version of hell or purgatory. While the space initially seems innocent enough, it’s not long before the characters discover invisible electrified fences, a towering wall that threatens to crush them, while yellow eyes glint in the dark as low predatory growls fills the theatre, all born from the minds of set designer Noor Effendy Ibrahim, lighting designer Emanorwatty Saleh and
sound designer Ramesh Krishnan.
But while the environment and atmosphere is threatening enough, the true horror of Theerppu comes from each character’s own story, and how they attempt to justify their often inhumane actions. The crimes do range from empathetic to the downright horrifying; on one end, there’s a mother who’s aborted her child. On the other, there’s a cult leader responsible for planning a series of bloody murders. Either way, no one here is innocent, and all sins must be paid for. Each time they confess, scenes filmed by K Rajagopal play on the towering wall, abstract but effective at magnifying the horror, while each character’s voice goes hollow and emotionless, as if detaching themselves from the guilt.
Knowing that each character eventually has to confess their sins, the narrative does become repetitive and cyclical at times. To lessen the problem, director Grace Kalaiselvi chooses to make this play less heavy on the script, and focus instead on the idea of suffering by having her cast almost constantly in motion, in this physical theatre-heavy piece. There is a precision to their movements that makes their punishments seem all the more visceral, as they lie writhing on the ground from electric shocks, or their faces contorting into visions of agony. Grace has managed to direct them such that nothing seems haphazard, and all movements feel deliberate yet natural.
Special mention goes out to performer Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, who does not play one of the original doomed souls. Instead, she constantly skitters around the edge of the stage, like a guardian or warden keeping watch on her prisoners. Donning dramatic makeup, she resembles a goddess or demon, with the lights shining down on her face, her intimidating expression giving her an aura of cruel glee at their plight. Audiences at the back of the Esplanade Theatre Studio may find that there are times this effect is dulled by how small she appears, but it is to Sangeetha’s credit that when she does eventually speak, it feels as if she has been possessed as she laughs, and ultimately does establish herself as a fearsome antagonist.
Much like the concept of purgatory, Theerppu suggests that punishment in the afterlife is cyclical, where sinners are tortured until a higher being believes that enough is enough. Through this reimagination, the Esplanade breathes new life into Marma Medai, maintaining its horror elements while expanding on the original concept, and driving home the fact that no sin goes unpunished.
Marma Medai – Theerppu (The Judgement) played from 26th to 28th November 2021 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. More information available here
The 2021 Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts ran from 19th to 28th November 2021 at the Esplanade and online. Full programme available here