Jo Trainor heads to the Noel Coward Theatre, for The RSC's social media call for their production of Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing is definitely one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, so when the RSC invited social media folk to come and watch a performance of Act 2, Scene 3, take pictures and have the opportunity to ask questions to some of the cast and Director Iqbal Khan, I jumped at the chance!
Translating the piece to a Modern Day Indian setting seemed to add character and life to the one scene we were treated to see. I think 'Hey Nonny, Nonny,' always has a lot of potential, and by adding a fabulous Bollywood feel to the song, it instantly put a smile on my face. Though I didn't watch the entire show, I have no doubt that this vibrancy and energy runs throughout and I'm sure Madhav Sharma's (Leonato) wish that the audience take home the happiness and joy of the piece, is one that will definitely come true!
Check out some of the pictures I took of the cast and incredible set, and the answers from the great Q and A session!
Cast and Creatives
Director - Iqbal Khan
Sagar Arya - Claudio
Raj Bajaj - Balthasar
Paul Bhattacharjee - Benedick
Anjana Vasan - Maid
Madhav Sharma - Leonato
Shiv Grewal - Don Pedro
Nawazish Ali Khan - Violin/Voice
Charlie Hay (nextdramaticstep.blog.co.uk): What makes this production different from last year’s performances of Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe and at the Wyndhams Theatre, and why do you think people love the story?
Iqbal Khan: Where we’ve located the play obviously transforms what the audience receives. One of the biggest things that changes is that present day India is a place where the ancient rituals and ideas of honour are still present. Thoughts of the importance of woman’s duty and chastity sit side by side with the idea that a woman can still be entrepreneurial and independent. And that obviously mines that scene in the play very authentically. But at the same time you have modern India; a thrusting technological India. Doing it with the music and the muscle of the Indian dialect helps the audience hear the play in a new way! They are some of things that I think help us refashion the story for an audience.
Melissa Barrett (personal facebook): After reading an article about what drew you to setting it in Modern Day India, I want to know what bits you found the most difficult to translate?
Iqbal Khan: The play is a challenge, full stop; particularly if you try and balance the seriousness that intrudes two thirds of the way through. The translation to Modern day India was a very easy one - it seems to fit brilliantly. The big change we’ve made is that the Watch, which is normally the security services that military bring with them, is created with those characters out of Leonato’s household. They turn their hands to anything, so they’re more of an improvised watch for the wedding. And again that’s a very happy translation; it’s worked really well and offered a lot of opportunities - I think that’s generally been the experience. It’s just the play, to mine it properly and give everyone, 21 people in the cast, the opportunity to have the time to sit and understand it. To understand its relationship to different audiences, back in the Courtyard in Stratford and then to adjust it to here (Noel Coward Theatre, London), time’s been a factor but I think the translation has offered more opportunities then obstacles.
Shiv Grewal: I think there are so many opportunities; we could have made it an even longer production! That was the biggest problem, cutting it down to something that would be comfortable in the West End.
Iqbal Khan: If you look at the characters; Leonato potentially being an ex-military man, still having the remnants of the British tradition again is a very authentic picture; Claudio potentially being an ex-playboy, and dealing with his past by going to into the military. Pedro being a Maharajah but actually in the military his status is just of a regular military man, but it’s when he comes out of that into a domestic situation that his status changes. All of those things work really easily for us!
Olivia Epps (oliviaepps.tumblr.com): I’m just wondering if any of you have played any sort of Shakespearean characters in the more traditional sense and just how this setting has changed the way you’ve play your Shakespearean characters?
Paul Bhattacharjee: It does, but I’m going to take issue with the question because you’ve used the word ‘traditional’ and Shakespeare in the same sentence; I have no idea what you’re talking about, none of us do! Really I think what you mean is having a group of English actors play Shakespeare, well obviously we’re not white skinned, English people, but we are British and Shakespeare is as much a part of our tradition as it is of yours. If you go to India now, go and get on train and talk to the train driver, I bet you he knows Shakespeare better than you!
One of the throw backs of Imperialism was that English was the language of education in India for many, many years. And actually the way Shakespeare is revered in India is probably of a higher status then we give it here. So when we use the word tradition, we should be really aware of what we’re talking about because there is a level of education in India that far exceeds our perceptions of it in the West.
The whole thing about putting Shakespeare in an Indian context and why it’s such an easy fit is because of the nature of the plays. You look at Much Ado; it’s a family tale, now if there’s anything that we grow up with in India, that we’re comfortable with, its great big, epic family stories! So there is no fitting or twisting or changing of the original to make it, I would say that this is traditional!
Madhav Sharma: Can I just add to that because I was born in India and started doing Shakespeare in India. I entirely agree with Paul, the concept that we have of Shakespeare as a traditionalist is historically inaccurate, literally not backed up. It is only of recent tradition that Shakespeare is played in a certain way with certain voices. Throughout history Shakespeare has been reinterpreted by different actors; Shylock was played as a comic with red hair, until one actor changed all that at the Drury Lane Theatre. Shakespeare is a living text; we don’t have an authoritative text as such. We have a first folio, which is two actors remembering what they did in Shakespeare’s company. And I know having been brought up in India, at school there, that Shakespeare was as much a part of my bones, as it has been living here. In fact for me one of the sadnesses of Britain today, is that we don’t recognise the fantastic opportunities that Shakespeare offers us.
This play, is not set in Guildford, it was set in Sicily by Shakespeare. Those notions of family honour of patriarchal attitudes within the family are very similar to those in India. Shakespeare works wherever you set him and that’s one of the beauties of Shakespeare for me. And I personally found no difficulty playing in this production, which is the first time I’ve done a Shakespeare set in India, I’ve done at least 35 Shakespeare’s set in all sorts of places. And it’s a wonderful experience because Shakespeare is so magical!
Shiv Grewal: I totally agree. There’s a certain amount of muscularity you get with an Indian accent with Shakespeare. This is very similar to what happened in Britain in the sixties and seventies, when we discovered how Northern accents were similarly muscular and allowed us to access Shakespeare in a particular way. I think it is easier to have that muscular tone, I’ve done it both ways; in an RP voice and a number of accents, and the Indian accent is the one that gives access like no other.
With the World Shakespeare Festival, do you have any thoughts on how the industry can give it a lasting legacy?
Iqbal Khan: I have a lot of thoughts about that. You talked about the sense of being open and diverse; I don’t think that should translate as ‘we should do more African productions of Julius Caesar, we should do more Indian productions of whatever.’ Ultimately if there is any significant legacy it’s that these plays can take abstract and a bit more. The entitlement of the artists who make the work on stage should be open to anyone.
The great thing about theatre and the thing that should always be protected, is that it isn’t film, it isn’t realistic, it’s a poetic leap. Within the first five minutes, if a white man walks on stage and says they're black, and that’s what you have to accept, you will accept it. If we, as a company, decided that we were going to play this in South Africa and do this in South African accents, very quickly you would accept it.
There’s an incredible liberation there, a liberation of the imagination; the commission of those that aren’t the thing, to play the thing. It allows us to loosen and broaden our sense of an individual. Humanity isn’t tied up in the colour of your skin, that’s what these plays are all about, they challenge easy conventional attitudes. So if there is a legacy here, I hope it is that it loosens the entitlement of those who make the work, it increases the number of people who feel entitled to do things that we do!
Matthew Amer (Official London Theatre): Raj, you’re the newest member of the cast on stage, fresh out of college; how are you finding joining the RSC and actually being on stage?
Raj Bajaj: Wow, incredible, literally! It was a dream come true and working with Iqbal and everyone around me, you tend to learn so much. You really get a sense of, not necessarily how to act, but just as a person how to behave. And I think that’s important, because in drama school you do your three years, it’s very intense and it’s very much this is how you act, this works, this doesn’t. Whereas here you can really be yourself and it’s just as important as an actor being on stage as it is as a human being outside of acting, and I think for me that was a big learning curve. It’s amazing; I’ve learnt a great deal and kept my foundations in terms of me be an actor, it has given me a lot more confidence.
Sam Idelbi (globetrotterpostcards.blogspot.co.uk): If there is one thing you want the audiences to take away from this production, what would it be?
Madhav Sharma: Happiness and joy that there is love in this world in many different forms.
Raj Bajaj: Family is important.
Iqbal Khan: It’s a f***ing good play! And it’s a much better play than I think it’s normally given credit for. I think normally it’s a bit of a romp and we have our fair share of romping on stage, but it’s much darker play, much more nuance play. I think potentially I’m persuaded that it could be Shakespeare’s best comedy. So if we could start to move the appreciation of the play on that’s wonderful. And like I said earlier on, the biggest thing for me, beyond the work, is the sense of who’s making the work. To be given the opportunity to do that here, to take it away from Stratford. We’re the first ever complete Asian company to do a Shakespeare play. They’ve had other Asian companies do modern plays etc. but never a Shakespeare. That’s a privilege, but it shouldn’t be a privilege. And the fact that we (the company) can start to move away from that, then I think that’s a really significant!
Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London
22 September - 27th October
7.30pm, also at 2.30pm on the 13th October