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Bringing Shakespeare to Mumbai

November 07, 2005 14:54 IST

Sanjna KapoorThe stage is set once more at a venue as celebrated for its heady Irish coffee as its intimate setting for home-grown theatre. Prithvi turns 27 this November, and presents its 31st theatre festival to Mumbai. This time though, it is a highly acclaimed British company that will take centrestage, and Sanjna Kapoor is more than happy to let her baby be eclipsed by their genius.

After all, it's taken her all of seven years of wooing Simon McBurney, celebrated theatrical maverick for Complicite, to finally come to India (Mumbai and Bangalore) as part of an international tour, with the best known bard's least classifiable work — Shakespeare's Measure For Measure.

Readying the audience was an exercise that began last month, when Prithvi tied up with theatre persons and local colleges to demystify Shakespeare over a series of workshops. "College students are the next generation of audiences," explains Sameera Iyengar, creative director, Prithvi.

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Creating anticipation about the festival were travelling street performances of Shakespeare-inspired audio visual performances and films screened through October.

"Complicite is legendary, so we didn't want to trip over ourselves trying to get local groups to match their calibre. Instead we let the philosophy of Complicite guide us," says Iyengar.

There is supposedly no Complicite method. What is essential to them is collaboration, built on what artistic director and co-founder Simon McBurney calls 'a series of extraordinary and intricate collisions between actors, collisions with music from anywhere in the world; collisions with writers.'

Sanjna, artistic director at Prithvi, explains, "Theatremania developed as a logical theme for the local context, and we chose three experimental, rugged and energetic groups that have a history of connecting with communities beyond the play".

At the festival, Ideas Unlimited will perform short scenes from some of the most brilliant playwriting of the past century, from Chekhov to Peter Handke and Samuel Beckett. Rage's 36 Ghante will feature 10-minute plays, all produced in 36 hours, by 12 leading playwrights in four languages. And Habib Tanvir fans will be thrilled to watch him perform Chekhov's The Harmful Effects Of Tobacco.

Theatremania also offers a plump slice of eight performances created for the well-received

Vijay Tendulkar festival performed earlier in Pune. The selection celebrates the prolific and fiercely controversial legend of modern Indian theatre through not just his one-act plays but also journalistic writing, including the dramatisation of his daily column 'Ram Prahar' in Loksatta, begun three days before the Babri Masjid was torn down.

The big letting go for Sanjna this time was to inaugurate the festival at the Jamshed Bhabha theatre. "The festival has always moved beyond the physical space of Prithvi to other theatres and community centres, but I do feel a little sad that the inauguration is outside..." she says. Complicite presumably chose the Jamshed Bhabha theatre because the production was originally designed for the epic backdrop of London's Olivier theatre. "But then," adds Kapoor, perking up, "when McBurney saw Prithvi, he said 'wow, let's do an unplugged version for this setting!'"

The energetic atmosphere of Prithvi can be fascinating, with its loyal audiences that have banded themselves unwittingly into a like-minded community. Simon apparently recognised that, and readied his 16-member cast to prepare to fit onto a 15'x11' stage. Sanjna is justifiably thrilled. "How often do you get to see a company of that calibre bringing a technically superior production down to its simplest form, retaining the strength to do purely actors' theatre?"

The mood at Prithvi's little office (there are only three full-time staff) is clearly one of elation mixed with trepidation. Sanjna says, "We originally planned for six shows, but whittled it down to four. Even filling 4,000 seats makes me nervous."

Prithvi's seating capacity is a modest 200. "This year, it's a shorter focussed show; in the last three years, we've really learned to focus. For our 25th year in 2003, we did an all-India showcase. At the time, we were hearing Habib Tanvir's name everywhere and decided the 2004 festival would celebrate his body of work and pay him his due as a pioneer of folk tradition," she continues.

Prithviraj Kapoor's dream of building a place that provided affordable, low risk theatre, took shape after his lifetime, in 1978. And it's come a long way from when groups had to be cajoled into performing. Sanjna ruminates, "When we turned 25, we asked ourselves what we stood for in today's context. I think it's all a muddle, mostly a good muddle. Sometimes we are just a venue. People think all plays staged here have our stamp of approval because our festivals are so widely appreciated but, honestly, some of the 400 shows are just horrid. I think sometimes we spoil our groups, giving them too much for so little, maybe it stops them from exploiting the full value of this beautiful space."

Back at the National Centre for Performing Arts, 31 jet-lagged British members of Complicite tuck into dal, rice and vegetables. Says McBurney, co-founder and artistic director, Complicite, "Traditionally, theatre has always been nomadic; it's in our blood to travel, so I had to come here. I am not a good tourist but I am in a unique and very fortunate position to travel as an artist."

Simon will steer a lecture-demonstration on Shakespeare on the last day of the festival that will be open to all, with two technical workshops for invitees only. He has a history of building relationships beyond the production, so he's keen on meeting writers, producers and artists and forge working associations. "I have heard there is a profound appreciation of Shakespeare here," he says, little realizing that, in our heads, Shakespeare is but a paraphrased schoolbook version of the original. "I am actually pretty clueless," he continues, "but I do feel hopeful."

And just like Simon, a keyed-up Sanjna is hoping there will be, as she says, "bottoms on every one of those seats."

Arati Menon Carroll