6 May 2013

Theatre: The Winter's Tale

Two theatre directors add a bit of sparkle (and some masala) to a Shakespearean gem.

When Anirudh Nair first approached Neel Chaudhuri two years ago with the idea that they direct a play together, they didn’t know the collaboration was going to lead them to The Winter’s Tale. Or even Shakespeare. Having cut his teeth on ShakeSoc (as the St. Stephen’s College theatre society refers to itself), Chaudhuri admits, may have dulled his enthusiasm for Shakespeare -- or at least “the myopic reverence that seems to colour everyone's attitudes towards studying and performing Shakespeare”. In any case, says Chaudhuri, he was “dying to work on a Chekhov text”.

The desire to work with a straight-up classic was something new for Chaudhuri. As he put it himself, his trajectory as a playwright and director until now “seems to have studiously avoided any affinity for classical modes of drama and performance”. From the improvised vignettes of Positions (2006) to the rather adventurous Mouse (2008), an unsettling interaction between an ‘actor’ and a ‘director’ which unfolded at least partially in the dark, via the thoroughly remarkable A Brief History of the Pantomimes (2008), right down to the superbly realized Taramandal (2010) (which won the Hindu Metroplus award for playwriting), Neel Chaudhuri’s plays have been about storytelling with a certain economy. Even when the dialogue is absolutely crucial, the dominant sensation you take away from his productions is one of quiet. And even when his starting point has been a well-known text – in Ich bin Fassbinder (2011) it was Fassbinder’s epochal film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in Taramandal it was Satyajit Ray’s short story about thwarted ambition, ‘Patol Babu, Film Star’ – Chaudhuri’s way has been to push at its edges, or to create narrative echoes for it, never simply to take the text as is.

Nair, on the other hand, has been working a lot with Shakespeare over the past four or five years – on using physical theatre in Shakespeare and also studying original practice (working with the specificities of Shakespearean rhythms, pentameter, how to use the punctuation, and so on). Nair’s Wide Aisle Productions has also been working on a project that takes Shakespeare to schools, and many of the actors who’re part of that project are also part of the Tadpole Repertory. Tadpole, founded in 2009, is a loose confederation of talented actors in concert with whom Chaudhuri has produced pretty much all his plays.

Chaudhuri was excited about what he and the Tadpole actors could learn from incorporating Nair’s physical training and gesture work. So Shakespeare it was. The group decided they wanted a play that had possibilities as an ensemble piece, not centred heavily around one or two characters – this eliminated, for instance, Hamlet and Othello – and something that Indian theatre-goers weren’t likely to be familiar with – this meant Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice were all out. From a shortlist that included The Taming of the Shrew and Pericles, the final choice was The Winter’s Tale.

One of Shakespeare’s later works, the play is split into two: the first half is a tragic tale of jealousy that unfolds in the court of King Leontes of Sicilia, while the second, which opens 16 years later in the kingdom of Bohemia, is exuberant in both its comedy and its romance. “The duality was both beguiling and bewildering,” says Chaudhuri. “It struck us as quite unique – court and country, tragedy and comedy, death and restoration, tyranny and abandonment. After a point it seemed really clear to us that it was a play ripe for all our ambitions.” The production that unfolded amid the astonishingly apt lily ponds and landscaped grassy mounds of Zorba the Buddha in Delhi this March certainly realized those ambitions. The cast moved with marvelous felicity -- from one part of the open-air venue to another, between the play’s inherent binaries, and most admirably, from a never-stiff Shakespearian English to a glorious, mobile Hindustani.

The confidence of that linguistic decision lies at the root of what is most striking about the play. It plays off the duality that already exists, and creates new ones. Tanzil Ahmad’s superb translation is finely attuned to changes of register in the original, recreating both high and low – and within the low, shifting between “the playfully exaggerated, the bawdy and the mundane”. So the trickster Autolycus’s aside to the audience, “If the springe hold, the cock’s mine!” becomes “Idhar phanda laga, udhar murga phansa!!”; the Clown’s exclamation, “I’ the name of me—” becomes “Arre teri!”. There is even room for the occasional Hinglish moment, without it turning into a fetish or a quirk. And whether they are speaking in English or Hindustani, the actors successfully inhabit the dialogue, bringing to their speech the individual accents and styles that come naturally to them.

Despite what anyone might tell you, Shakespearean language takes a while to get used to. And yet when your ear accepts it, it can be more poetic and brilliant than anything you imagined. Nair and Chaudhuri’s production provides the wonderful sense of being at home, both in the language of Shakespeare and in a language a lot of us know but no longer really speak. This is a production that is both absolutely universal and yet utterly located in the here and now of 2013 India. There is something remarkable going on here. As Leontes says at the end of the play, “If this be magic, let it be an art/ Lawful as eating.”

Published in the April-May issue of Le City Deluxe, an international luxury lifestyle magazine that has recently launched in India (and was kind enough to want to publish a theatre-related piece).

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