Taking Sides: Atul Kumar’s new play questions the artist’s dilemma over political stance

The courtroom drama, written by playwright Ronald Harwood, explores the grey area of morality between the regime and the arts

Atul Kumar in a scene from ‘Taking Sides’

By Reema Gowalla

Shuttling between Pune and Mumbai for the first run of his new play Taking Sides, actor-director Atul Kumar is dealing with difficult emotions within himself too. “It’s an endearing moment to be back on stage, surreal to feel the lights on you again and meet the audience outside the virtual space. But given what’s been happening in the nation in the past few days, it also makes one question the role of the arts at such times. Are we to remain subtle, poetic and continue to speak in metaphors, or stake a stand?,” he asks.

Introspection, morality and dilemma ride high in Atul’s latest directorial, a cerebral piece of theatre written by British playwright Ronald Harwood in 1995. It scrutinises how music, art and politics dabble in society, and how artists cope with the grey area of morality and ethics in between.

The plot is centred on a 1946 courtroom trial

The narrative deals with an investigation into Germany’s Wilhelm Furtwängler (played by Atul), the emblematic music composer and conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich. As part of the post-war US denazification probe, the maestro faces a volley of questions in a courtroom by army officer Major Steve Arnold (played by actor Sukant Goel), who is vehemently trying to frame him as a collaborator under Hitler’s regime, the dominant question being whether or not music can act as resistance to a popular yet vile ideology.

If Wilhelm was not a supporter of the Nazi rule, why didn’t he, like scores of other artists, leave Germany at that time? Why did he hesitate to take a moral stand and speak to power? Major Steve questioned his inspiration to continue making music, performing at state events, and even taking on official positions. In the fatiguing 1946 trial scene, the celebrated artist faces allegations of him being a “Nazi pawn, whose concerts put a high-toned gloss on a murderous regime”, raising concerns about whether he was “a symbol to the entire world of all that is great in culture and music”.

“Wilhelm’s response to not fleeing his nation when it was in the grip of an authoritarian regime was that he loved his homeland and its people. Whatever be the circumstances, the most important role of the arts — and in this case music — is to provide comfort to the people in difficult situations and provide a ray of hope for them. The composer believed that music was above politics and all the upheaval it causes,” says Atul, explaining the psyche of his character in Taking Sides.

The play features an ensemble cast

One may say that this play could not have come at a better time when so many of us find ourselves at a crossroads of what our political stand should be, and whether we should speak up or remain silent. “In Taking Sides, the recurrent question is whether you are an artist first or a human being. How do you deal with the moral choices of active resistance and speaking in metaphors; is the artist’s role limited to passively touching the human spirit and soul; at what point should they begin to fight against the forces,” the theatremaker elaborates, adding, “The play provokes the audience to introspect and address the dilemma rather than resolve it.”

Talking about what inspired him to pick this play in particular, Atul says, “I was deeply moved by Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó’s movie based on this play when I first watched it a few years ago. The pandemic afforded me time to revisit the script and I decided to bring this piece to the stage.”

Produced by Kamshet-based The Company Theatre, Taking Sides’ ensemble cast also features actors Mallika Singh, Kenneth Desai, Kashin Shetty, Pranjal Vaid, Kashish Saluja, Richa Jain, Vara Raturi, Kanchan Khilare, Naman Sheth, Rahul Joglekar, Rahul Kumar, Rajiv and Sukra. After its premiere show at an alternative space in Pune called The Box, Taking Sides is currently running at Mumbai’s Lé Chakallas Studios (at 3 pm and 8 pm). Plans are afoot to bring the play to Bengaluru in May 2022.

You can book your tickets for the February 12 and 13 Mumbai shows here.

Sukant Goel and Atul Kumar in the play

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