Of surveillance and workplace fear, Mike Bartlett’s savage two-hander gets a new adaptation in Bengaluru

Originally written as a radio play, the new stage version of ‘Contractions’ is directed by Srinivas Besetty; premiering at Ranga Shankara on October 5

By Reema Gowalla

There’s probably only one department at workplace that says, “We care about you and your growth within the company. But as long as you are with us, anything you do is a breach of conduct!” With finesse, they draw up your contract, which in just one read can turn you into a ‘resource’ from a human being.

Set against the backdrop of an alleged ‘office romance’ that leads to a face-off between an employee named Emma and her human resources manager, ‘Contractions’ is a black comedy by British playwright Mike Bartlett, which was first published in 2007. It was originally written as a radio play that spotlights the civil-yet-uneasy exchange between the HR department and employees within the plush interiors of ergonomic corporate offices.

Bengaluru-based theatre group Kahe Vidushak Foundation is premiering an adaptation of this critically-acclaimed play at Ranga Shankara this week. Directed by Srinivas Besetty, ‘Contractions’ features actors Sangita Nambiar, Suhasini Seelin and Vivek Sinha.

Srinivas Besetty

“Although most offices remained closed during the pandemic, the angst and fear associated with employee-manager meetings continued even within the work-from-home regime. I came across the script of ‘Contractions’ during a writing workshop and almost instantly decided to adapt it. It’s a satire about the real world. The play doesn’t, at any point, deviate from reality, and that’s what makes it apt for the times we’re living in,” says Srinivas, adding, “The drama dabbles in two very important aspects in the life of a working professional — right to privacy and mental health. In a minimalist setting, the play questions the power of a jargon-filled job contracts that dictate the nine-to-five life of employees, and in most cases outside that too. In a keen and clever style, the play lashes out at the system which is designed to control the lives of people who dedicate their waking hours to this grind.”

Vivek assumes the role of the faceless surveillance system that skims through your professional and personal life ‘in the interest of the company’. “Office chairs and stacks of files are important props used on stage that are as good as real characters in the play,” says the director. Sound design for the performance is done by Dhron, while Sanjay Bharadwaj is in charge of set design.

Describing her experience of working in the play as intense and challenging, Sangita says, “‘Contractions’ is an experimental piece with absurdist motifs. The storyline mirrors the work culture of big conglomerates that claim to be egalitarian but usually dwells in a climate of fear and breach. The loss of privacy and its impact on a person’s mental well-being is the focal point of the play. While you would think that it’s only your work hours that the office has command over, the lines between your professional and personal life get easily and often blurred. Although a dystopian setup, the plot draws a lot from our day-to-day work life and its invasive nature.”

Sangita Nambiar and Suhasini Seelin during the rehearsals

Suhasini, on the other, is a theatre practitioner from Australia who started her journey with Kahe Vidushak Foundation from its Natya Alochan sessions. “The pandemic had brought the world of performing arts to a standstill and, needless to say, I was very eager to do a physical play when this project came about. It’s a dark yet funny play that shuttles between the real and surreal. Employees often tend to get confused with the legal language of job contracts. In a subtle manner, this piece nudges you to pay attention to the fine print,” she elaborates.

In an attempt to delve deeper into the manager-employee interactions, the play progresses in a cyclical style — where employees eventually become managers and inadvertently follow the process taught to them. The drama is a combination of scenes that can be labelled both personal and commonplace, hinting at problems of the characters and the society at large.

Shows of this ‘savage corporate satire’ are scheduled for October 5 and 6 (7 pm) at Ranga Shankara. You can book your tickets here.

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