Dating Cancer at a coffee shop

“One of the most unique aspects about the play is the character of Cancer itself.  We first encounter him in a coffee shop lighting up a cigarette,” writes Aparajith Dinesh.

The play Monsters in the Dark is an adaptation of the book The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I caught this play performed by Bangalore Little Theatre at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru on December the 16th.

The play begins with three lab rats debating on the significance of the role they must play in contributing to the advancement of science. From such an unconventional start, the play dives into the history of cancer while exploring many layers, from the commercialisation of tobacco to the ethical considerations of treating diseased children with experimental drugs for scientific research, and without missing the essence and grammar of theatre and holding the audience engrossed. This is the first time, I have seen a documentary style of storytelling being employed in theatre, and I found it quite novel and deftly handled.

One of the most unique aspects of Monsters in the Dark is the character of Cancer itself.  We first encounter him in a coffee shop lighting up a cigarette. He casually checks his phone and has the air of an easy going, laid back cool dude. In walks a pretty girl and asks if the seat is taken. He smooth-talks her with charm.  

After learning that she’s a medical student, he recounts the story of Sidney Farber, Gordon Zubrod and Carla Reed. Amazed by his insights; the girl is intrigued and finds him irresistible. She finds herself thinking about him again and again. The way he narrates the story of cancer taking her along, it is almost as if he had been there. She comes back to him and asks for help on another topic. He keeps taking her along into each part of the journey of cancer and the quest for its cure.  

As the days go by, she begins to fall in love with him. As they become closer, her health deteriorates, and she develops lung cancer. She is shocked at how she, someone who has never touched a cigarette in her could develop cancer, until the realisation dawns upon her. He is cancer, and she had been flirting with him.  

Often, we are intrigued by the human representation of abstract concepts or materialistic objects. Never would I have thought of cancer as a person. But if there ever was a cunning and deceitful villain to a story it would have to be him. Someone who lurks unnoticed. Someone who becomes so close to you he becomes a part of you and when he does, he tears you apart from the inside while enjoying what you will go through. What a character!

How wonderful it would to just sit across the table and ask why. Why me? I’m sure all of us have questions we would like answered from some abstract element of this world.

In Cancer’s narration, he touches upon many subjects for us to ponder over. During their research to find the cure for Cancer, the scientists have the devastating decision of choosing between treating the children suffering from leukaemia with drugs that might or might not work to release them of their suffering. How ethical is it to subject children to heavy doses of chemicals in the hope that one experiment might eventually lead to success? To weigh progress through the extra days that the children might get to live is to be quite clinically brutal.

Even the corporates are not spared. After tobacco companies learn of the ill-effects their products are causing its consumers, they put in every ounce of effort to hide the details from the public. After the information is leaked, not much is done to stop them. (It is true that they provide warning messages on their packets and that the responsibility of consuming cigarettes even after knowing its side effects rests heavily on the consumers. Still, isn’t it ethically wrong to mass produce a substance that contributes to the decline in human life?)

The conflict and efforts between those seeking a cure, the patients and the rats that must serve their purpose for the advancement of science through their suffering, the moral and ethical committees limited by their role and knowledge who must decide whether the research must go on, the tobacco companies that need to continue business… and then the character of cancer itself… it all made for very shocking and thought provoking theatre. You could almost call it a theatre of science. The performance of all the actors was excellent and they swapped roles and with just a slight change of costume or prop, transforming themselves from one character into another.

Monsters in the Dark makes one contemplate about many things that might seem insignificant and go unnoticed under our very noses. The beauty of the play lies in the message that it gives; “every part of the story contributes to it”.

Photo : Sridhar Parthasarathy


Aparajith is a student pursuing his first year of the International Baccalaureate Program at Christ Junior College, Bengaluru. He studies the world around him, connecting dots on the go!



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