Its a world that would have made the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and Mel Brooks proud, a world where madness rules, completely and unquestioningly. Here a Hamlet would cootchie-coo Juliet, Desdemona would rather flirt with Caesar, while a brown Romeo could find company in a white Othello. If character swapping werent enough, theres more-choreographed histories and Othello as a rap performance.
Welcome to the world of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which promises to be "the funniest two hours youll ever spend with Shakespeare". The play, which opens at Delhis Kamani Auditorium on May 5, condenses all of the Bards 37 plays in a single performance by three actors-Giles Hewitt, Sukhesh Arora and Vivek Mansukhani, who also directs the play. The actors career through the histories, comedies and tragedies at a whirlwind pace. "Its a high-speed roller-coaster ride," promises Mansukhani. And comes with the warning attached-that it isnt recommended for expectant mothers, people with heart ailments, or bladder problems and, most of all, for those with an English degree!
Shakespeare, shaken and stirred, seems to be the favourite cocktail in Delhis English theatre circuit. Of late, plays from Mumbai-Siren City or Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha-have hogged the limelight. Meanwhile, Delhis own groups have been experimenting with the Bard and lending a cutting edge to English theatre from its margins.
As Mansukhani puts it, its theatre for the adventurists, not purists. His play comes on the heels of Arjun Rainas The Magic Eye, an inventive take on Midsummer Nights Dream, which in turn followed Roysten Abels Romeo and Juliet in Technicolour. Abels earlier production, Othello, A Play in Black and White, had picked up the Fringe First award at last years Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He has now started rehearsing Goodbye Desdemona, another experiment with Shakespeare which premieres this summer at the Edinburgh festival.
Interest in the Bard has been rekindled by films like Shakespeare in Love, Midsummer Nights Dream and Elizabeth. "Theres a huge revival, its like a search for a classical culture," says Raina. Which seems to have found an echo in our Capital. But the Old Man isnt sacrosanct on the Delhi stage. "There have been so many interpretative versions of Shakespeare the world over as well," says Mansukhani.
For Abel, Shakespeare is an encyclopaedia: "The reaction to any incident or emotion finds a parallel in one of his plays." But Abel thinks that people who hold him sacrosanct are doing him a great disservice: "He wrote 400 years ago for the working class, and in the common mans language. It was like todays Bollywood. Those who put him on a pedestal are being absolutely sacrilegious to him." Abel would call his productions the fusion of Shakespeare and Pedro Almodovar, this years best foreign film Oscar winner, drawing on Almodovars irreverence, humour, drama and visuals.
Raina equates Shakespeare to a plane you would hijack to grab attention. Hes also the icon of the White culture, of the colonial authority. "Something gets released when you exercise your power over this icon. The idea is to deform his play, not into something ugly but to give it your own beauty and shape," he says. For him, reinventing Shakespeare is a political act, a reason, perhaps, why it appeals to a political city like Delhi.
Mansukhanis play is a satiric slapstick of sorts-"full of wilful misreadings of names and dialogues, playful puns, clunky female impersonations, broad burlesque and raunchy ribaldry". Originally done by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (lampooning the Royal Shakespeare Company), its now the longest running comedy in Londons West End. Its the first time that an Indian group has chosen to stage the work.
The Complete Works is unique in the way it involves a lot of interaction with the audience. "The audience doesnt just laugh but contributes to the laughter. Lets see whether the Delhi audience is groovy enough to play along and go bananas," says Mansukhani. But its most taxing on the three actors who deliver not just witty lines but also indulge in a lot of physical horseplay. Rashid Ansari, a movement and martial art expert, worked with them to make the action supple while opera singer Situ Singh Buehler helped them with different voices and intonations.
Silly fun and frolic isnt what Rainas Shakespeare is made of. His focus is on Kathakali. With 10 years of training in the art form, he staged Othello in Kathakali a couple of years ago: "The idea was to make Kathakali accessible to Shakespeare-knowing audiences."
The Magic Eye takes just one incident from Midsummers, of Titania and Oberon finding an Indian boy, and presents it in a form which Raina calls Khelkali-a fusion of play and dance. "Its a form of light classical theatre," he says. Raina has travelled with The Magic Eye in the US for the past three months. "For them the play is a symbol of the exotic, magical and mysterious. But with Shakespeare as your base you can forge an immediate link with them. You become a black as well as a white," says Raina. He now plans to take it to the hills in Himachal. Where only Titania and Oberon will be replaced by Shiv and Parvati fighting for Ganesh.
Having done Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and Measure for Measure in original, Abel is using the Bard to talk about acting and actors. "Theatre is my immediate reality, it is a ground for real, solid emotions and nobody else is bothered about us actors anyway," he says, a trifle cynically. His Othello was a story about actors rehearsing the play and in Romeo and Juliet it was about the commune of actors making a film. Goodbye Desdemona is about two actors (Barry John and Adil Hussain) who have played Othello and Iago in a previous play and how from jealousy they move on to love while playing in Romeo and Juliet. In the process, the play reinterprets both Othello and Romeo and Juliet and the characters quote extensively from Laurence Oliviers Othello.
Abels method is as complex as his thematic concerns. He doesnt work with any script, screenplay or dialogue. All he has in mind are the situations and he wants the actors to get into the flow during the rehearsals. The idea is to improvise emotions to the situation and bring it out in a language people can understand. "The actor and audience must discover the moment of truth together. The idea is to make the stage and the audience into one whole space; its then that the ritual gets complete," says Abel. So each show of the play is different, "almost same", yet not completely the same.
Even before he embarks on a new project, another one is already playing in Abels head. Called Lying Shakespeare, it will have one actor each from six countries-India, the Netherlands, Japan, China, Sri Lanka and the US. The theme is about truth of collaborative work, about the process of acting. Amidst all these interpretations, one question continues to tease: how will the purists respond to this revisionism? For now, though, from the Elizabethan era to the Delhi stage through so many countries, for Shakespeare the whole worlds a stage.