The Bard Keeps Unlikely Company

Nithya Andrew

Red-nosed clowns, a tulle-skirted cupid, and a suicidal steward. The Bard has had makeovers that may seem strange but intriguing nevertheless.

In 2018, a bunch of mutinous clowns gloriously took to the stage, deconstructing and rebuilding one of William Shakespeare's famous plays MACBETH. For actor-director-filmmaker Rajat Kapoor, clowns are the absurdist lens through which he has remodelled MACBETH on stage for the young and the curious, calling it WHAT'S DONE, IS DONE.

Making Shakespeare relevant in the cultural moment of the 'now' seems to be a heady challenge that theatre-makers have taken to with gusto. However, the weight of this responsibility is three-fold: How much authenticity the director owes to the original text? How well the re-staging of culturally-steeped work follows through in execution? How relevant is the adaptation to its present audience? Consider these questions in postcolonial India, where the reactions to Shakespeare have been vast are varied. How abstract can a Shakespearean production be, yet succeed, without alienating audiences?

Shakespeare has been popular in India like in many other countries in original, as well as in translation, and in adaptation. Here's a look at three recent adaptations based on some of the best known plays by the Bard.

Clowning Around With Rajat Kapoor

While Shakespeare can be tricky to adapt and Shakespearean English may not be everyone's cup of tea, Rajat Kapoor has simply outmanoeuvred any niggling issues about nuance or language by just clowning it all! Characters’ identities can be bleached clean of their pasts and contexts, never mind, the deep irony in this for Shakespeare's characters. WHAT'S DONE, IS DONE, an adaptation of MACBETH, is entirely played by clowns who speak English with what appears to be a put-on Spanish accent. Abstract, yes. Arbitrary, you can be the judge. Of course Rajat Kapoor is no stranger to clown plays on Shakespeare's classics. Both clowns and Shakespeare seem to absorb him but he is at high risk of the enterprise getting jaded.

Keeping It Real With Indianostrum Theatre

Fresh off a run from the festival of Francophonies to Rangashankara's annual 2018 theatre festival, Indianostrum's adaptation of ROMEO AND JULIET called CHANDALA, IMPURE, was a treat to the senses. Directed by Koumarane Valavane, this production adapts an eternal love story to actually underline caste in India. The play was a three-hour long presentation that blended popular film-making's indulgences into the stark live performance of a stage. Running like a smooth, well-oiled machine, CHANDALA, IMPURE misses no beat, while exposing the wounds of a discriminated and disadvantaged community in a way that's striking and unforgettable. Not to forget the optimal use of the stage that paves the path for imaginations to take off. It was a feat for a production that had just one show at the venue at the time. Handled with deliberate care and nuance, this one was a sensory treat that underscored experimental theatre's imperative to explore familiar texts in order to convey them through progressive productions.

Turning The Other Cheek With Tim Crouch

Featuring actor-director Tim Crouch from the UK in a solo performance, I, MALVOLIO, features the original play's antagonist as the primary (and only) character. Crouch has said that this work is an exploration of human cruelty. Perhaps it is then, an experiment in itself, when Crouch as the hyper-critical Malvolio insults and chides the audience and then invites one of them to kick his chair, as he stands on it with a noose around his neck. Is it easier to be cruel when the object of one's cruelty seems to merit cruelty in some way? Perhaps the best example comes from the character itself, as Malvolio in Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT, is often the butt of everyone's practical jokes for reasons that are comparatively trivial. Thought-provoking (and provoking in general) I, MALVOLIO interrogates and exposes our moral stands, and the righteousness that often goes along with these.

What we find in all three productions is the ability to be disruptive of the original texts and we might come to think of them as plays in their own right. Intrigued? Watch out for The HandleBards’ adaptation of THE TWELFTH NIGHT. A touring, bicycle-powered theatre company will be performing an environmentally sustainable Shakespeare across the country!

*Nithya Andrew is a Fashion Marketing Editor from Bangalore, pursuing a doctoral degree in performance anthropology

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