Relevance in irreverence: Why Shakespeare remains immortal

1Four centuries after his death, the literary king still inspires fresh interpretation.

Four hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death, his work continues to fill playhouses around the world. The Indian stage still sees the occasional conventional production with actors in Elizabethan costumes delivering lines in a 16th-century tongue. However, the dust on the floorboards is more often raised by local interpretations that employ indigenous storytelling forms and contemporary settings. So much so, that in 2012, London’s Shakespeare’s Globe theatre invited Mumbai directors Atul Kumar and Sunil Shanbag to stage Indian adaptations for an international audience. This Saturday, marks four centuries’ worth of a master playwright still speaking beyond his grave.

Shakespeare’s works have long drawn favour in Mumbai. From at least as far back as 1890, the Parsi theatre companies staged adaptations of the Bard’s works in Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and Gujarati at playhouses on Grant Road. Parsi theatre declined in the 1930s but not without its melodrama seeping into Hindi cinema. From the 1940s until the 1980s, Geoffrey and Laura Kendal’s travelling repertory Shakespeareana toured India with works of the Bard and other classic British playwrights, occasionally featuring their son-in-law and actor Shashi Kapoor, and even inspiring a young Naseeruddin Shah in school.

From the 1950s and into the 2000s, Mumbai audiences watched several grand Shakespeare productions as he wrote them, and staged by the likes of Alyque Padamsee and Shah. In 2006, Tim Supple’s romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed in Indian languages and Sinhalese, drawing on performance forms such as Lathakali and Mallakhamb. It was the introduction to big-budget, multi-lingual retelling of Shakespeare for numerous Indian viewers. Some might argue that Shakespeare is best enjoyed when his works are performed as he wrote them, but the past few years have seen a spate of contemporary retellings across the country. As Kumar notes, “Almost 80 per cent of Shakespeare productions in India today are experimental works that have a fresh take. These are fantastic times for Indian theatre.”

Thanks to popular culture, phrases like “All’s well that ends well” and “To be or not to be?” are familiar even for those who have never encountered Shakespeare’s works. The Bard is, after all, the most influential writer in English literature, and a favourite subject for workshops held at the city’s summer theatre festivals for kids and at youth theatre fest Thespo. But the reason behind the immortality of Shakespeare’s works and why they translate so well across time and space, director Rajat Kapoor says, is because of the Bard’s immersive understanding of the human condition, creating unforgettable characters that leading actors still aspire to portray. “We haven’t changed much,” says Kapoor. “Is there a better work on jealousy than Othello? Does anything beat Macbeth on greed and ambition? Is there anything beyond King Lear on fathers and daughters? We relate to these emotions and these themes — betrayal, powerlessness, inaction — around the world.”

Different takes

One of the best indices of a playwright’s popularity are bums on seats — hardly a problem for the four highly popular adaptations of Shakespeare’s works directed by Kapoor, which have played to audiences in India and abroad. All four plays are enacted by clowns speaking mostly gibberish, beginning with Hamlet – The Clown Prince in 2007, in which Atul Kumar played the title role.

Kapoor said, “I was drawn to Hamlet because it was probably the best-known piece of literature in the world.” In his version, a bevy of clowns attempt to stage the Shakespearean tragedy while using the plot points of a powerless prince plotting revenge to foreground their own personal drama. They lace their nonsense language with the Bard’s phrases to draw parallels between the emotional storms of Hamlet and their own lives. The production has won several prizes at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards.

Both Kumar and Kapoor’s favourite adaptation of the Bard’s work is Habib Tanvir’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kapoor, who saw Tanvir’s Dream a decade ago in Delhi, was impressed by the translation of the title itself, Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna. Kumar says, “Tanvir’s Dream is the most beautiful production where actors and director managed to make it their own, and not represent ideas of what Shakespeare should be like or what academics have written about.” That’s a philosophy Kapoor and Kumar have enjoyed putting into practice with their productions.

Kapoor employed gibberish as a theatrical device to explore the world of the clowns rather than of Shakespeare, and jesters play crucial roles with their subversive wisdom in the Bard’s plays. But employing a troupe of clowns also enabled the cast to tease out any inhibitions the audience might feel at watching a centuries-old classic. Rehearsals shuttled between immersive readings of the text and devised work. The cast built on gestures and their own telling, so that the final piece includes moments that an audience can recognise from the text if they desired.

In one evocative move, Kumar beats his chest to release a puff of powder, reminiscent of the ever-present ghost of Hamlet’s father and Shakespeare’s description of man as “the quintessence of dust”. Kapoor’s Hamlet was Kumar’s first Shakespeare production. The Bard’s world had initially made no sense when he first read the texts decades ago, as a teenager “from a Hindi-speaking, lower -middle class family of old Delhi”. Hamlet switched up his appreciation of the Bard, and he returned in Kapoor’s Nothing Like Lear in 2012, to deliver a solo production in gibberish, bridging the family problems and existential dilemma of Shakespeare’s senile king with that of a middle-class Maharashtrian father.

“Shakespeare actually wrote his plays to be performed,” says Kapoor. The director first spent time with the Bard when he translated The Taming Of The Shrew into Hindi over four months for a friend’s production, but it was only when he saw the play on stage months later that the text leapt out at him. “Shakespeare needs to be watched to be understood,” says Kapoor. Better yet, direct a work of Shakespeare to really get into its skin, continues the director, who debuted adaptations of Macbeth and As You Like It in the past six months alone. Kumar, currently rehearsing shows of his folk adaptation of Twelfth Night which played at the Globe, finds fresh fodder in the Bard’s work too. He has two productions in the pipeline: a devised take on Dream, and another that will look at the world of Shakespeare’s plays through his female characters.

Published on The Hindu