India's Hedda Gabler
Joy Michael was crisp and cool, she had the charisma to withhold quality in her economical acting style that seemed just right for Hedda.
Joy Michael the soul of Yatrik and a frontrunner in Delhi's theatre circles passed away last week. Obituaries have highlighted her pivotal role in the making of an iconic persona, one who not only graphed her way to an epic status in culture but was also at one time the Principal of St. Thomas School, Mandir Marg.
My first glimpse and experience of Joy Michael as an actor came on the stage of Hedda Gabler 1969 when one afternoon my mother took me to watch this Ibsen melodrama that dipped the depths of depression.
As a 14-year-old schoolgirl, I didn't quite understand the unraveling coils of Hedda's psychology in the play, but it was Joy's presence on stage that attracted me and held my attention. Joy had that ability, she could bewitch an audience through the vehicle of a manifestly unlovable character –Hedda's character was a challenge hard to resist. My mother had just returned from New York on a Fullbright Scholarship and had seen the play on Broadway.
Famous interpreters on Broadway have included Minnie Maddern Fiske, Alla Nazimova and Eva Le Gallienne, the great champion (and translator) of Ibsen in the 1920s. But the list of distinguished actresses who have portrayed Hedda could be elaborated endlessly: Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rigg in versions currently available on DVD, Glenda Jackson in another filmed version from 1975, Claire Bloom on Broadway in 1971, the stunning Annette Bening in a Los Angeles production just about a decade ago.
Henrik Ibsen's monumental classic about Hedda is valid and relevant even today. That is the capacity that Joy had as an actor — the urge to clarify and forge a connection with the audience by evoking sympathy or pathos or even amusement. This is why Joy could do roles that others couldn't. I recall my mother stating that Hedda was a dark character-not easy to understand. Ibsen portrayed Hedda as a character who must captivate without seducing, and that can rub against the grain of an actor's natural instinct. Joy was able to do just that.
So while she played the role of Hedda she did not attempt to reveal too much about Hedda that Ibsen did not specifically plant in the text, nor did she settle on a neat formula, but she wove in a larger somehow complex character based on personality and predicament.
Joy was crisp and cool, she had the charisma to withhold quality in her economical acting style that seemed just right for Hedda, a suggestion that calculations
and assessments are continually going on behind the big, dark-eyed narrative of eerie intensities. After Hedda Gabler, I recall watching Joy Michael and Ebrahim Alkazi at Sapru House. Unforgettable indeed were their costumes designed by Roshan Alkazi.
Born in Calcutta in 1924 to a Bengali father and a half-German mother, Joy Michael was part of the Delhi's English theatre circuit. She was also instrumental in introducing Delhi's primarily Hindi-speaking people to the world of English theatre and drama through the adaptations of English plays translated in Hindi.
Joy was singlehandedly responsible for bringing India's vernacular languages to the English speaking gentry in Delhi. Yatrik staged plays translated from Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, Urdu, and works of the playwrights of all Indian languages like Dr. Laxmi Narain Lal, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Adya Rangacharya, Rajinder Singh Bedi etc. She also became instrumental in promoting original writings in Hindi through the likes of Irpinder Puri, J.N. Kaushal, Sai Paranjpye, and others.
Between the two winsome ladies, Joy and Sushma Seth created plays in Urdu, Hindi, and English, and also started doing child theatre. The 60's and 70's were golden days for theatre circles in Delhi. Joy Michael's passing away shines the light on a historic past.
(The author is an art curator and critic. The views are strictly personal)