For those of you not in the know (and I knew only because I’d happened to read about “Fearless Nadia” when attending an exhibition of vintage Bollywood posters at the Powerhouse Museum last year), the first Australian to star in an Indian film did so long before Tania Zaetta or Brett Lee.
Fearless N presents the fascinating true story Mary Ann Evans, aka Fearless Nadia, an Australian-born actress and stunt woman who became a Bollywood star in the 1930s. With her immaculate blonde hairdo and somewhat burly physique, Nadia may have seemed an unlikely candidate for stardom in India, but her action-oriented adventure roles in which she performed her own stunts caught the public’s imagination. A larger-than-life figure often appearing masked and wielding a whip, her characters’ abilities to defeat wicked men in physical combat amidst death-defying stunts (such as on top of a moving train) made her a superhero-esque cult figure.
Devised by Theatre Kantanka with the initial idea, script and original research provided by playwright Noëlle Janaczewska, this production is slightly left-field of an average theatre piece, featuring multimedia and a degree of interactivity, all framed by the metatheatrical conceit that you, the audience, are extras on a film set in which a biopic is being made about the life of Fearless Nadia. This play-within-a-play (or you could say, film within a play) idea is used consistently throughout, although it is highly theatrical in its presentation, the full artifice of both filmmaking and also theatre performance is undisguised and in full view.
Following this line of logic, we are not watching depictions of the actual historical people but rather depictions of the actors performing them, it would seem. However, the production wisely chooses not to take this metatheatricality to the next level by examining in any detail the biopic actors as characters themselves, thus keeping things relatively digestible.
The staging is very multifaceted and disarmingly clever in its versatility. The film-set stage is constantly reconfigured through the use of different mini-sets off to the far sides of the wide stage, wheeling on dressing rooms and cages, and making good use of multiple levels. Following the filmic theme, the show’s multimedia component manifests itself with the use of live feeds from small digital cameras used visibly onstage (much of the small cast frequently portray the film crew) and simultaneously projected onto a variety of screens, many of which are temporarily erected through some ingenious use of canopies, scrims and enormous tarps.
This constant redefinition of the theatre space is very stimulating, as is the use of sound. Making a self-reflexive reference to the fact that most Bollywood dialogue was entirely re-recorded in postproduction (known as ADR or “looping”), the play makes prominent use of a sound mixing booth onstage, with the sound-techs a part of the drama. Several scenes play with this notion of dubbing, alternatively showing a pre-recorded silent film for which the play’s actors then overdub themselves live on stage, while at other times the actors stage scenes live and lip-synch to their own pre-recorded dialogue tracks.
The interactivity is an element that may turn some people off, however none but the most cripplingly shy should be concerned about it. As the production’s framing device positions the audience as extras on a film set, quite a few are openly recruited (during the plays prolonged pre-show segment) to play various roles as cowboys, soldiers and ladies who lunch. It is an undemanding task, generally requiring one to wear a silly hat and temporarily sit at certain places on the stage while filmed scenes take place around them. It is actually a charming involvement that doesn’t have the awkward edge that many dread when they hear the phrase “audience participation”.
Given Janaczewska’s engagement with multicultural themes in the past, this subject matter is an excellent choice of project. Indeed, the Australian-born daughter of a Scottish soldier who made a name for herself in Bombay, Nadia’s story sails through some quite rich postcolonial waters. Although mostly concerned with her career, the play also examines some interesting issues of cultural and gender identity in Nadia’s rather unique life, including her difficulties conforming to traditional feminine occupations and overcoming the intercultural prejudices of her lover Homi Wadia’s strict Parsi mother.
The cast is very engaging and contains no weak links. Most of those involved perform many roles as both characters in the film and crew members, the main exceptions being Nadia herself and the director of the film. Ms. Director controls all the action and is the only role that is not subsumed by the historical character portrayed. She is a cynical old hand at the business, her catch-cry “time is money” and her passing moments of lechery toward the extras are highly amusing. Wonderfully portrayed by Georgina Naidu, she certainly steals the show at times. However, she does not overshadow Chris Murphy who is excellent as Nadia (or, the actor playing Nadia, if you prefer), bringing a very understated quality to the role that equally encompass the campy fight scenes and melodrama as well as the more sensitive moments that edge a little closer to naturalism.
Theatre Kantanka’s latest offering is intriguing, clever and above all else tremendous fun. Don’t let the out-of-the-way venue put you off - Fearless N is well worth the trek.
Theatre Kantanka and Sydney Olympic Park present
Venue: The Armory Theatre | Building 22, Newington Armory, Jamieson Street, Sydney Olympic Park
Season: 7 - 23 March 2008
Times: Friday and Saturday 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Matinees: Saturday 8 & 22 March 2pm
Cost: $25 Full/$18 Concession/$18 Group bookings (10+)
Bookings: 02 9714 7368 or sydneyolympicpark.com.au/Visiting/Whats_on/events/all_events/fearless_n