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Higuita: Decoding the Anxiety

Among the most renowned names in world football, the Columbian superstar goalkeeper José René Higuita Zapata has a niche of his own. His heroics have become footballing folklore and the only thing quirkier than his athletic abilities is possibly his hair. His playing style is what popularised the term ‘sweeper-keeper’ and earned him the nickname, El Loco (The Madman).

Director Sasidaran Naduvil will transport you into a rather thrilling football scenario at the beginning of ‘Higuita: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick’. A dramatization of the famous story “Higuita” written by N.S. Madhavan, the play revolves around the painful personal transformation of a football player. Geervaghese, an upcoming football star gives up a promising career in football and transitions into a life of priesthood. The guilt of losing his coach and father after a souring relationship makes him surrender his sport and change the course of his life.

One of the most exciting sets in this edition of META, being in the audience meant enjoying the performance like a football fan. You behold the panorama of a replicated football field sitting on the sidelines. The goal posts at each end double up as entries and exits to the wings and the life like commentary of a live football match in the play is hugely enthralling. For most of the performance, the field performs its literal function. When it is time to switch to the non-footballing scenes, the lights do the trick. From floodlights to spotlights and more, the experience is illustriously transient.

There are a lot of boundaries that have been broken through this performance, especially those that exist between actors, audience and the production team. It starts with a recognised META volunteer appearing for a scene and a football match that turns into a comedy of errors. No matter the choreography, the actor ended up missing the winning goal thrice and the audience knew what was happening. Our collective reactions were delightful. The full throttle (quite literally) is felt when an actual scooter from the 1990’s era appears on stage. The set design and properties in this production are genuinely eye-catching.

There are moments however when one feels that the overbearing nature of the sport and the football field itself, takes away from some of the scenes.  While the field demarcations have been effectively and symbolically used, some actors fail to convince you of the space they inhabit, especially in parts where the game is not being played.

The core of Higuita (the production) can be found in the timeless questions the production asks. It starts with the new life of a man who is now known as Reverend Gevargheese. Running a small chapel in a parish of South Delhi, his life is one like a goalkeeper. He mans a religious ‘post’ like an eye-witness, much like a ‘goalie’ watches most of the game being played outside his/her box with very little to do. But there are crucial moments where s/he can be called upon. The succinct parallel is drawn with a penalty kick (as the title suggests) when the keeper has to take a leap of faith. One decision can make or break his/her team’s fortunes.

Father Gevargheese is now at that conundrum. Lucy, an oppressed and exploited tribal labour is asking for his help to release her from the evil clutches of Jabbar, the middleman. Will Father Gevergheese help her? From an active goal scorer in his early days to a now a passive observer of life around, will he find the courage to do what is necessary?

The real questions however are not for Father Gevargheese, but for us. When “there is injustice happening at dawn’, will we “meet it at dusk”? Will we rise up to the occasion when the situation demands? The actors moulded these questions around the events of Kathua and Unnao to appeal to our collective conscience.

José Higuita’s world never existed between the goalposts. He went down in history as the only goalkeeper who left his position to bomb forward. With extra-ordinary sets and life-like props, Higuita: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick’, has certainly managed to leave a mark in this edition of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards. One can’t help but notice the glaring similarities between the production and the goalkeeper himself, both bound by unique abilities to break boundaries in their own right.

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