A park bench is as neutral a public space as you can get; but its very neutrality imbues it with dramatic potential that playwrights have recognised and exploited over the years. Edward Albee set up a class conflict between Peter and Jerry on a bench in New York’s Central Park, that ends in a gory death.
Herb Gardner put old friends Nat, a Jew and Midge, an African-American, on a park bench to deal with the realities of ageing in a heartless city. Closer home, Manas Kaul gave Madan, Uday and Nawaz three separate park benches to sit on, but they still fought for territorial rights.
Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods put two nuclear arms negotiators, one from former USSR, another from USA, on a bench in a Geneva forest, to see if, man-to-man, they can find a way to peace. The play was inspired by a true incident that occurred during the 1982 Geneva peace negotiations, when two such men achieved a breakthrough in talks while walking in the woods, only to have their governments knock down the agreement they had reached.
Likewise, Blessing’s Bottvinnik and Honeyman also discover that, however honest their intentions and sound their proposals may be, their efforts are destined to be stymied by political bosses.
The veteran Bottnivik knows this in advance. Newbroom Honeyman learns it later. Side-stepping the brass tacks of political negotiations which would have dated the play as soon as the Cold War ended, Blessing concentrates, rather, on the differences in experience, attitude and temperament that divide the two negotiating men.
This gives the play a human dimension that carries it beyond its immediate political context. Faisal Rashid and Randeep Hooda have done a fine job in bringing the problem right to our doorstep, for Motley’s A Walk in the Woods, ably directed by Ratna Pathak Shah.
Their adaptation pits a charmingly cynical Pakistani negotiator, Jamaluddin Lutfullah, (Naseeruddin Shah) against the earnest and optimistic Indian negotiator Ram Chinappa (Rajit Kapur).
The moment the two sit down on a bench in the Geneva woods to see if talking informally might help negotiations, they are confronted by the 65-year-old barrier of distrust that history has created between the two nations. “Our history is geography,” says Jamaluddin. Every issue that needs resolution is the product of one painful fact — Partition. It is across this barrier that the two men must talk and arrive at an understanding.
Jamaluddin prophesies that it will take the two nations decades of work before they can trust each other enough to even want an understanding. Ram believes in giving it a determined and honest shot, certain that things can change with individual effort. The comic situation that results from Jamaluddin tiptoeing around the target, deliberately getting in the way of Ram, who is trying to hit bull’s eye, gives rise to some sparkling exchanges between the two.
Jamal sees friendship as a way in. Ram sees friendship as irrelevant and unnecessary. Jamal suggests frivolity. Ram cannot rise to the demand. Shah and Kapur conduct this verbal pas de deux with sublime sophistication.
To hear lines spoken with the clarity of diction and consummate control over pace and rhythm that these two actors bring to the stage, is arguably, the chief gift of the production.
Mihir Thacker and Amrita Bagchi’s neat set design includes a backdrop of painted trees, a sloping ramp, a bench and a tree stump. Neutral in mood, these elements spring to life under Michael Nazareth’s lighting that suggests the passage of time, both, diurnal and seasonal.
A Walk in the Woods is not a play that soars. Its feet are planted firmly on the ground. The question at its centre is not a big one that relates to human destiny, but the nagging existential one that every human being must grapple with — the question of who we are and what we want to do with our lives. How worthwhile is it for Jamal and Ram to commit to a drama that is nothing more substantial than a “quest for the appearance of a quest for peace”?
Predictably, the negotiations end in a blank. Government stances are rigid. Yet the two men have achieved something that is of human worth. Through the lights and shadows of the year, they have arrived at a quiet personal friendship, based on mutual respect and belief in each other’s desire for peace. That’s light enough to live by.