Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

Son of Shakespeare-Wallah

Weekend Telegraph, 30th March 1991

The early performances didn’t seem to be going down too well. The audiences were apparently indifferent to the Bard. But as the English Shakespeare Company proceeded with its tour, it learned that the Indians were immersed in his works – they just had an unusual way of showing their appreciation. Louise Nicholson watched from the wings.

Up on the stage of the Kamini Auditorium in New Delhi, the thoroughly contemptible Coriolanus, dressed in a drab grey suit, comes forward through bare props and harsh lighting suggestive of some economically deprived Eastern European country. Grabbing the microphone, he bellows into it, damning the imagined populus who have given him the highest position in the land. Actors sitting in the audience get up, shout and jeer – furious at the ingratitude of the man they have raises to such heights. Coriolanus is exiled. In the stifling, airless theatre, it is hot work for Michael Pennington and his English Shakespeare Company, many thousands of miles from home.

Down in the dark below, the audience seem oblivious of their efforts. Many had arrived late, including a man with long, matted hair who shuffles noisily to his seat, his grubby, baggy trousers given dignity by an exotic red-and-blue striped shawl draped over one shoulder.

There was a constant buzz of chatter. A manicured woman in the front row, swathed in a tomato-red silk sari with gold brocade edging, the button-sized diamonds in her ears and nose confirming her status, discussed developments in the Gulf war with her handsome escort.

A tall Sikh in an untidy turban got up in mid-speech, went out, came back and sat down in a different seat, right in front of a small, very serious-looking man in a dark suit who was making notes. Other people made similar moves, until it seemed a quarter of the audience was playing a mysterious, slow motion game of musical chairs.

In the lobby, a heated argument broke out, competing with the actors for attention. Then came the interval, when the political gossip that is the life-blood of Delhi filled the air, and hot vegetable savouries did a roaring trade. After it, a number of seats were empty. And at the end, those who had stayed the course to see Coriolanus die gave scant applause before scuttling out.

For three weeks, all the Indian audiences behaved like this. In Britain, the actors would have been thoroughly fed up. The first night in Bombay they were, until a local came backstage and burst out enthusiastically: “Look how many stayed to the end! And they even applauded! You’re a terrific success!” By the time they reached Delhi, a rather calmer Pennington could philosophise: “The probably thought ‘OK, so Coriolanus has been exiled, that’s it’ and went off to the movies.”

This coolness and apparent lack of interest on the part of Indian audiences has nothing to do with a rejection of Imperialistic values. Quite the reverse. It belies an Indian love of Shakespeare which borders on possessive passion. But, just as it is perfectly normal for an Indian to go to two or three hours of an all-night music recital, so it is perfectly acceptable to drop in to an act or two of Shakespeare.

Imagine this. In the tiny territory of Mizoram in northeastern India, bordered by Bangladesh and Burma, teenagers stroll down the streets chanting not lines from the popular Hindi movies of Bombay but the speeches of the Prince of Denmark. Redemption Theatricals’ production of ‘Hamlet’ played in the local Hizo language has been a runaway success for five years. And such was its instant popularity that the entrepreneurial local amateur actors obtained 3,000 cassette tapes – a feat in itself – squeezed the play down to 45 minutes, and in less than a fortnight sold all recordings on the streets.

Or this – for it is in translation that some of India’s most vibrant Shakespeare theatre can be found today. Delhi director Amal Allana has just produced ‘King Lear’ in a new Hindustani translation, setting it among the proud Rajput princes of Rajasthan. “The subject – three women fighting for land heritance – is totally suitable,” she says. “So are the high-powered curses Lear throws at his daughter, the youngest daughter being misunderstood, and the theme of exile. So it’s all highly accessible to the Indian mind. All these emotions are in our ‘Mahabharata’.”   

Such sensitivity to the appropriateness of Shakespeare’s plots is nothing new: in the ‘70s, the great Bengali actor-director Utpal Dutt took a political line and staged ‘Macbeth’ during Indira Gandhi’s repressive emergency. “We knew,” he said later, “that we couldn’t find a better play against autocracy.” The Calcuttans, India’s cultural elite, got the point loud and clear; it passed over the heads of the Delhi politicians.

Clearly, far from having Shakespeare thrust upon them, the Indians can’t get enough of it. When the British Council asked India what theatre they would like brought out from Britain, the immediate cry was for “Shakespeare, performed by your best troupe”. Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington’s English Shakespeare Company were invited.

They slotted in four weeks in India between the Europe and Australia fixtures of their six-month world tour, bringing ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ to Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi and Calcutta audiences. Even for a company which took ‘The Wars of the Roses’ on the road in Britain and internationally for two years, India was to be a challenge, off-stage and on.  

Practical organisation is something Indians themselves acknowledge to be a frustrating obstacle course. For David Bownes, the company manager, steering a troupe of 40 actors and technicians plus the stage equipment around India has been his greatest test to date. “Touring anywhere else in the world is a nightmare,” he said, smiling calmly just after two buses failed to turn up to transfer the company to the theatre and he rounded up a dozen taxis from all the dusty streets. “In India it is a triple nightmare.”

Kevin Fitz-Simons, in charge of lighting, summed up India as “a lack of plugs and sockets; they just shrove two wires into a socket here”. Dashing between theatre and hotel in the back of an auto-rickshaw, a lethally dangerous form of public transport, he recalled how one night a generator packed up before the show. Someone trying to borrow some of the diesel had let the air in.

With a string of horror stories from previous visiting companies, it was decided to abandon scenery and all but the most essential props for the India part of the tour. But those essential props included a crate of guns and pistols used in ‘Coriolanus’, which is set in present-day Eastern Europe. In the current political climate, it seemed to make little difference to the customs at Bombay that the weapons were replicas and could fire only blanks. To get them through the red tape took a non-stop 24 hours and included the close perusal of letters from Indian ministers, the presence of British Council representatives, and 13 signatures, each from a different person in a different office. One official silently and slowly finished her lunch before signing.

India successfully thwarted attempts to move even the pared-down stage equipment. An overnight announcement that the internal planes, into which the freight had been carefully designed to fit exactly, were to change immediately for a size smaller because of fuel shortages meant that one or two larger props had to stay in Bombay. It was then that the Bangalore carpenters and craftsmen showed what they could do. As one amazed actor reported: “Using tools you see only in a medieval history museum, they simply set to, and in two days made everything we couldn’t bring from Bombay – the massive shearing platform for ‘The Winter’s Tale’, the sheep pen, tables, everything.”

Replacing the giant Coriolanus head vital to the play was less successful. The original was made of fibreglass. The Bangalore sculpture students used chicken wire and plaster of Paris. The result was magnificent but, because the plaster was still wet, extremely heavy. Just as it was being delivered into the theatre, it imploded. The students wept, but the show went on.

The actors have shared the boards with a variety of wildlife. Bats were hanging from the grid of one, and squeaked throughout the lightning storm of ‘The Winter’s Tale’; chipmunks scampered along an air vent; a family of rats living in a piece of old scenery played hide-and-seek during shows; and a lizard fell from the flies on to the stage made a dazed bid for stardom, then scuttled off. The audience took no notice; the British cast were totally phased. “It’s not something that happens in Nottingham,” said on actor.

“But then nothing is the same in India,” added June Watson, who plays Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, rousing herself from a snooze between matinee and evening performances, while the rest of the cast played cards or read Anita Desai and V.S. Naipaul novels. “I share a dressing room with a rat, share a stage with a lizard, ride an elephant, walk along a street with a monkey, and watch a man levitate.” Pausing to yawn, she went on dreamily: “I can’t get on with things today because I went to the Taj Mahal yesterday. I saw it, burst into tears, and didn’t want to leave it.”

Off-stage noises have been disconcerting, too. Having been aggressively interrogated by a Bombay journalist who accused Bogdanov and Pennington of making the Coriolanus enemy army fundamentalist Moslems (which was untrue), hearts missed a beat in Bangalore when, mid-performance, thunderous shouting in the streets outside grew nearer and nearer. Far from being a riot, it turned out to be a wedding procession.

The Bombay customs, the bats and the Taj Mahal have churned up the company’s emotions. But it is the audience which, after the initial surprise, have really impressed them.

To begin with, they know their Shakespeare, and in a way which is typical of this vast, inordinately complex land whose ancient culture and many empires have survived countless invasions and conquests. India has never knelt at the foot of a foreign culture. Rather, it has cast an almost nonchalant eye at its string of occupying tax-gathers, selecting from each – be he Turk, Afghan, Persian, Portuguese, French, Danish or British – certain cultural element which it absorbs, digests and then uses to create something new and dynamic.

So with William Shakespeare. Introduced quite widely last century, when the homesick British played it in their clubs and theatres, two strands of Shakespeare soon developed. While the rising Indian middle class learnt the language of their rulers, the Bard became part of the Indian school curriculum designed and examined in far-flung England.

At the same time, the swelling national movement encouraged translations into some of India’s plethora of languages. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ went into Bengali in 1853, ‘Hamlet’ into Marathi’ in 1862, while ‘A Comedy of Errors’ crossed new territory into Gujarati in 1865, Sanskrit in 1877 and Hindi two years later. When the Rabindranath Tagore’s brother, Jyotirindranath, made a fine Bengali translation of ‘Julius Caesar’ in 1907, it was considered a great tribute to Shakespeare. Translation continues today, and at a Shakespeare festival held in Delhi two years ago, some 250 made over the last century were catalogued, though most of them have never been performed.

In independent India, both strands – the English and the usually shortened and simplified translations – live in conflict. Purists keep to the English. In Delhi, Professor Rupen Desai edits the well-read Shakespeare journal “Hamlet” and is a specialist on ‘The Winter’s Tale’, while the Shakespeare Society of St Stephens College still produces its annual play, once using the beautiful Lodi Gardens as the theatre for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. In Calcutta, an English graduate recalls with dreamy pleasure spending two years going through the first two acts of ‘Macbeth’: “I had a superb professor, totally methodical. We started at the beginning, with ‘Enter three witches’ and he gave three lectures on just that. It was captivating. I remember it all.”

Roshan Seth, who played Nehru in Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’, belongs to the purist set. Leaving the ESC’s ‘Coriolanus’ performance, he was almost ecstatic. “There! Three and a half hours and I wasn’t bored for a second. The political plot is perfect, utterly perfect for India”.

At India’s elite schools – although no longer in the capital’s progressive institutions – pupils follow tradition, starting with ‘The Merchant of Venice’. It was to past pupils of these schools that India’s most famous travelling theatre played, the Kendal family’s Shakespeareana (immortalised in the Merchant-Ivory film ‘Shakespeare-Wallah). Geoffrey and his two daughters, Jennifer and Felicity trundled round India on their annual Shakespeare tour, to be laughed at with a mixture of affection and respect.

So it is no surprise that the actors have come to enjoy and respect their noisy, frank and keen houses. The free approach of the audience “Keeps us on our toes, making us realise there’s someone out there. The whole attitude is different, and the show benefits.” As well as the formal audience, there are usually a dozen without tickets, necks craned to catch every drop of the action.

Audience recognition of Shakespeare’s puns and wordplay has impressed the whole troupe. “They get it much faster than a British audience,” observed Karen Ardiff, on her first ESC tour, “and we get the feeling they understand it better than us. It’s tremendously stimulating.” Lyn Farleigh, who plays Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, agrees. With half her mind in a projected train trip to Varanasi, she added: “I was waiting in the foyer to do an entrance and people came over to discuss the part. It is marvellous.”

“Noisily attentive” is how Michael Pennington sums up what his whole company agrees to be “some of our classiest audience yet”. In Bangalore, an academic bounced up to him after the show and asked about Olivier’s performance of Coriolanus in 1956 at Stratford.

“He wanted to know if Olivier had used a certain rubato effect and changed the beat of two specific speeches in the dying moments of Coriolanus. In vain did I try to tell them that I was only 12 years old then and, although I had seen the production, performances change from day to day.” The man’s enthusiasm and information were overwhelming. Later, he brought Pennington a little carved shrine of Ganesh, the Hindu god of learning and prosperity, “so all obstacles will be out of my way and I’ll make lots of money”.

To tour a theatre group in India, the god’s bounty in both criteria would be useful. The ESC wants to return there, next time to some of the smaller cities. There is even talk of reviving the Kendal tradition and taking an eight-man company round in a Land Rover. Mizoram will doubtless be on their itinerary.

Return to Articles