It has been staged on numerous occasions. It has won critical acclaim across the globe, has had long runs at London and at New York, there bagging the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It has been clapperboarded on celluloid by Billy Wilder, having earned nominations for six Academy Awards. And it has been adapted into Bengali by Bijoy Chattopadhyay, rebaptised a pithy Sakkhi. The allusion, dear DIte, is to the cliffhanger, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, among Agatha Christie’s seven plays -- modest in comparison to her novels, which are legion. And DI elected to stage this vernacular transliteration. On the first day of the 18th edition of the theatre festival, Sampreeti. On 19th February. At Uttam Mancha.
The four-day event, hosted this year by Calcutta Rowing Club and that had eight clubs of the city participating, was flagged off with an introduction of the Presidents of the clubs and the members of the organising committee, followed by the traditional lighting of the lamp. Inauguration over, the curtains rose to Tagore’s Chorai Dhan, presented by Calcutta International Club. A belief that marriages are made in heaven and, hence, the delusion that they are subject to the zodiacal dictates of the celestial bodies, was pitted against the modern rationale that what matter are the love that binds two hearts together and a willingness to make sacrifices to make the union blossom into something sublime. A legitimate, it at once portrayed the enlightenment of the consummate story-teller, and demonstrated the acting skills of the cast, especially the protagonist, Subhendu Dey, in the role of Bijan Behari .
Patties and the regulation tea tucked in, the audience settled down to burps for the post-intermission presentation, Sakkhi. The spotlight focussed on Priyanath pleading his innocence to ace criminal lawyer, Basab Basu, -- he took some convincing before finally deigning to take up the case -- in the murder of Ratnabali, a rich, elderly widow Priyanath had befriended after an accident and whose loneliness he sought to ameliorate by affording her company. The testimony of the police officer, producing exhibits of Priyanath’s blood-stained clothes and the murder weapon were rebutted convincingly by the defence counsel with the wife’s statement to the police that he had that day cut his finger, a deep gash, which accounted for the blood-stains. He likewise trashed the maid’s testimony, of overhearing Priyanath conversing with the lady behind closed doors around the time of the murder, in the light of the maid’s admission to her impaired hearing. But surprise – and a nasty one at that -- awaited him, when the wife, Mrinalini, whom he had banked upon as his star witness, reneged on her statement to the police and – far from invoking her spousal testimonial privilege – turned an adverse spouse and deposed that Priyanath, on returning home a bundle of nerves on that fateful night after what the post mortem had established as the time of death, confessed to doing in the lady. More damning evidence emerged in the form of the victim’s last will and testament bequeathing almost all of her vast property to Priyanath and which he admitted knowledge of. A more compelling motive for a murder is, indeed, hard to come by.
A twist, however, appeared in the form of a burqa-clad woman trading some letters from Mrinalini to her paramour where she had assured she would give false statement in court squarely incriminating Priyanath, thereby consigning him to gaol and thus removing the obstacle impeding their union. The billets-doux wrought Priyanath’s acquittal. Expectedly. But a Christieesque denouement yet awaited the audience: later that evening Mrinalini stumped Basu with the revelation that she, indeed, was the mystery woman who had given him those fabricated letters to convince the judge of her husband’s innocence. She had engineered this elaborate intrigue, she confessed, aware that her evidence supporting her husband would have been laughed out of court. Priyanath had, indeed committed the crime, she declared to a stunned Basu. A smug Priyanath nodded in assent.
Such was the frenzy that had built up over the month-long rehearsals that some in the cast chose to let off steam on the eve of the show by unwinding at Sujit Saha’s, albeit not before three hours of gruelling technical practice at the venue. While the director, Biplab Dasgupta, seldom interfered in the course of the practice, choosing instead to afford a few tweaks at the penultimate stage, it would be giving fairness a wide berth to not acknowledge – split infinitives, frowned upon by puritans, on occasions do lend the desired emphasis, it has but to be conceded -- the bulk of the engine-room work done by the technical director, Sukumar Banerjee.
And show it did: every member of the cast redeemed his/her role; even the figurant, the court clerk, impressed with his business. Such was the grip of the play on the audience that none noticed that it had stretched far beyond the allotted fifty minutes. It was no claque that accorded the standing ovation, the ultimate barometer of the success of a play.
The cast of the characters in the order of their appearance:-
Avinash (lawyer) ..............................Saibal Sen
Basab Basu (criminal lawyer) ........ Sovan Dutt
Priyanath (defendant).................... Jayajit Biswas
Ratnabali (victim) ...........................Aditi Dutt
Latika (victim’s maid) .....................Tapasi Mukherjee
Arka (Basab’s junior).......................Subham Poddar
Chandan (police inspector) ............Raja Mukherjee
Mrinalini (Priyanath’s wife) ...........Paromita Roy
Judge ..............................................Sujit Saha
Public Prosecutor ...........................Sanjay Mukherjee
Back stage.......................................Minu Roychowdhury & Raju Raman