Winter Smoke


winter smoke
haze from fires

the air foul
like yesterday’s breath

A setting for Macbeth

The audience is restive. Quiet. Nervous. Edgy. They are hushed. Murmuring. Whispering. The mood is somber. It has everything to do with the curtain. I have replaced the red velvet with a heavy charred sackcloth with distinct marks of a devastating fire across the expanse of the tattered fabric. It is brown. And black.

The twilight reveals a backdrop of suspended planks, charred, soot-covered, hanging in various permutations from knotted white ropes. Like giant swings. Each plank has a hundred smoldering candles. Blood red. Fifty planks. Five thousand snuffed candles. The wisp of innumerable smoke trails struggling to find a way out of the theatre. Succeeding instead to slowly drift upwards and hover above the barren stage. And there it waited. Listening. Remembering.

Enter Macbeth

Layout 1

rage on the brink, uncertain
on edge

the blaze

in the mirror

her eyes
her eyes

dust black as soot

unable to dream
burning the night

The forest shedding
its camouflage donning
helmets first
then training
its guns
the trees moving
into formation
their intent.

Fascinated Macbeth
the prophecy take shape.

Layout 1

I am the man stilled
in a landscape racing past me

Slap of thunder aluminium
sheet before the deluge flashing
strobe under cover of fan winded
plastic sheets nailed to their coffins
now ripped apart from their hinges of rust
by gale force trumpets sounding
the arrival of the witches.

All three of them.
Bearing gifts.
Hurriedly wrapped in the moon’s eclipse.
For the unexpected arrival of the newborn.

her lips the shape of whispers

brazen red

The shadows wary
from their slumber

into deep wakefulness

Layout 1

scrubbing feverishly the bloodied wax even as the candle burns out
nervously pouring water on palms full of bushfires
unhurried the shadows biding time
patient mostly except for the one with the eyes like a step-well

from another past
spreading behind smokescreens the flames
of a disfranchised enchantment

now disturbing
and disinterested

Macbeth’s dream

I walked off the battlefield.
Leaving behind the fire. The smoke.
dreaming of victory.

A freshly plowed field.
Neatly planted saplings. Nestling.
Within touching distance.
Of each other.

In the twilight.
An upside down tree. Roots
in the air. Gasping for breath.
The tree of Life.

Layout 1

Motionless tableaux. Her mouth rigid. Faking death. Lips shut. Holding back vomit. The skin on her face. Taut. A canvas stretched. Nose crippled. Unable to smell. The air foul. Ears. Refusing to hear. The wind a frozen blur. The corner of her eyes. Wrinkle free. Mirrored surface. Not a ripple. The clouds above the eyelids. Dark.

Having spent the first half of the night covering them with blood.
And the second half. Washing the blood off them.
In the morning. She hung the sheets. Out to dry.

The extraordinary stillness in her eyes preceded the storm.

My Macbeth is almost entirely anemic. Bleached. The colour slowly draining out. Line by line. In the beginning was the bloodletting. Three colours Red. Then the Evil. Symbolized through the lighting. Shadows. Dark. Black. But it all changes. First imperceptibly. Then like a spiraling drain that sucks the colour out of the play. In a flash. The people wear bloodless attire. Lady M is always in white. Banquo’s Ghost is without colour. Having discarded the traditional costume of the Ghost. White. In fact it is only a fleeting shadow. Mostly invisible. Heard. Not seen.

Macbeth will slowly turn white too. Drop by drop. He will become Banquo. The leeches are having a field day. Crawling all over his body. A walking corpse.

. . . so on and so forth.

winter smoke 05

The wilderness I speak of is empty. The kind you do not wish to simply ‘go for a walk’ in. No you don’t. Not in this empty wild countryside. Desolate is the first word that springs up amongst the thorny bush. Followed closely by lonely. The first thing you notice is that the landscape is devoid of green. No trees. The bushes are burnt to dark brown. Rocks. Grey craggy monoliths that look down upon you with their slate eyes. Blank slabs of stone.

There is wind. Strong. Cold. The kind that burns the skin before freezing it.
The wind makes no sound. It is very lonely too.

The scene is shattered by a flash of light. Not quite lightning. And definitely without thunder. Just the silence that suggests the ominous. Then another. And another. Each time singeing the earth.

I think: how dense is the silence.
You could slice it with the edge of your whisper.

Then I hear it. First like a low rumble. Not continuous like a drone. No. More like an irregularly paced chant. Language. Text that sounds familiar.

Lips made bloodied by the wind trying to make sense of a life that is no longer worth living.

Lying against a slab stone the figure of Lear.
Naked in the cold.
Blind. Eyelids in motion.

Riveted. By his own nightmare.

Layout 1

Hear that
gust of wind
sharp like

a bolt snapped shut
the tear slid down
the cheek made slope
a solitary descent
a half-shut window
its hinges thirsting
for oil
in the wind
a winter
long gone come
to solicit death
no longer
at arms length
its shadow growing
climbing up
swallowing the wall
like ivy
barring its poison fangs
devouring everything
the storm in rage
grinding itself
to a halt
its foot jammed
into the door
painful impasse

stillness ruptured

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The heath. Always. Barren. Vast. Foreboding. Like the light. Cold. The kind that brooks no nonsense. And makes its way. Deep into the skin. Flickering. Like the herald about to announce the storm. The absence of sound. Like the scream strangled. In its own throat. The ground. Rearing up to meet your face. Unsettling. Like a choppy sea.

The man. Solitary. Bent. Raised his face to the skies. Causing the earth to swell and shudder. Pausing mid-stride. Stopping to listen. He turned his head. Towards the sound of flapping wings. Seeing the horizon darken. An army of ravens.

The sky took a deep breath.

Then let fall.

Staggering onto the stage startling the light into dark made complete by shock slowly gasping for breath whistling the light into breathing white turning his back raising his bum in a wiggling salute to the audience pulling off the conical hat sending bells at the end of the tassels aringing putting it back on his red wigged head sloppily leaning first to the side as if against a tree non-existent itself at forty-five degrees to the powdery wind wearing flat floppy shoes like rainbows curved at the edges each bigger than the other pants striped in an asterixy blue and the chest sequined in glitter alternating rubies and diamonds occasional flashes of gold pivoting on heels the shimmer the glimmer the harsh beam of light revealing a face full of red and white cherries yellow stems with green thorny leaves between swollen red lips the eyes blazing twisted orange flames wafer thin undulating to the strains of an imagined green sleeves one two three one two three played by a trio of clarinets each pitched one level above the other.

Enter the clown

Blow over
blow over

red dust storm of my delirium
swirling your refusal

to settle

blinding eyes
shutting out dreams
from a throat parched
at the finishing line choking
unable to cross over

blow away
blow away

Layout 1

At the end of a day twice the length of an ordinary lifetime
he slept
a sleep so full of itself

only death
could awaken him.

Wind full of anger buried
in an earthfilled with rage

the sky picking the chalkiness
from its eyes
like grit
marching warriorlike
taking position


reason departing
in a hurry

rushingout of range

still hesitating
the storm

Like worms that glow
these luminous presences
ebbing and flowing
on this vast and cold
ocean of a heath
I have created with hands
as old as the earth they have kneaded
over time calculated in centuries
in anticipation of the storm
shrouds awaiting Lear

for the storm will surely come

Layout 1

On this bare stage. Made stark by my words. I shatter the dark. By a beam deliberate. In white made slightly less. Harsh. Than the kind that blinds. For this too has a purpose. It wishes to reveal that which lies beneath the actor’s mask. Not the mask of the made up face. I speak of the face as mask. The facelessness of the mask that the actor wears. On his face. Just before his words will lay bare. Make stark. His intent. The insecure lines that lie beneath the spoken ones. Just beneath. Like a silhouette of the real. For this is Hamlet. Making his entrance from a wing. Placed so far stage left that it merges with its own. Shadow. The one that is beneath the silhouette. Hidden. The light is placed in the wings. Each spot in tandem but controlled separately. So that the designer can play with the face and the head full of hair with different degrees of intensity. Depending on the mood of the actor. Or the pitch of his delivery. The words will find solace in light. Light that will reflect them. The words. That lie below. Waiting. For their cue. Unsure of its coming. But one needs to be in readiness. Who can tell when the actor will choose to speak them. Words at the edge of time. The cue. The pause before an enthralled audience. The moment that captivates. Holds like rivets. The fascination of an audience. Waiting. For their cue. To be pulled into the performance. Or to be left out. In the cold. Disappointed.
Who can tell if at all. The actor. Will speak them. Or let them fall between the pauses. Sinking. Into a silence.

The curtain goes up on a dark stage. Nothing new that. Nor the fact that it is Hamlet being staged. But the dark expands itself into the audience. Like the uncontrollable fog that envelops the heath. The red of the exit signs is off. As is the line of floor lights to illuminate the aisles. There is no music nor sound. Just the dark. Stifling and strangling. The comfort of a restless audience beginning to reveal signs of anxiety.

The dark refusing to go away. A directorial whim? Perhaps.

Then. A sound as sharp as a shriek. Piercing the dark. Both audibly and visually. The tearing of a strip of large 6-inch-wide tape from one end of the stage to another. Revealing a sharply glowing white. Like the white that a headlight catches as it bisects the road. Narrow but accurate in its geometry. More and more strips. Like screams that die while trying to escape. The stage takes on en eerie appearance. White crisscrossing the black. As if by magic the floor is bisected over and over by the white lines. Like a chess board out of Alice. Askew. Drunken. At tangents to the moves you make.

And then the glowing white catches a torso. A shirt with loose full sleeves and no legs. Floating into our consciousness. First as voice. Then. A face. Glowing. From the reflective white of the lines. We hear the words our memory has already etched into our consciousness.

to be or not to be

Slap of thunder aluminum
sheet before the deluge flashing
strobe under cover of fan winded
plastic sheets nailed to their coffins
now ripped apart from their hinges of rust
by gale force trumpets sounding
the arrival of the witches.

All three of them.

Bearing gifts.

Hurriedly wrapped in the moon’s eclipse.

For the unexpected arrival of the newborn.

Naveen Kishore. Theatre lighting designer, photographer, publisher. Seagull Books.

Sunandini Banerjee (collages) is Senior Editor and Graphic Designer, Seagull Books. She lives and works in Calcutta.

Varun Kishore (sound) is a guitar player, composer and producer based in Calcutta. He works across genres and runs a recording studio called Seagull Sound.

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