A Bard for Every Nation

Othello and Desdemona. Kathakali artistes perform Shakespeare

Othello and Desdemona. Kathakali artistes perform Shakespeare

I had anticipated that being in India on Saturday 23rd April this year would mean that I would miss all of the events and interest surrounding the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. I would however, imagine that  if anyone from outside of the UK was asked to name the most significant literary figure from our country, Shakespeare would, quite rightly, appear at the top of the list. As someone who loves theatre, literature and language I would most certainly concur with this judgement. However, in believing that this most quintessentially English of playwrights might have been pushed to the sidelines in India, a country that is the birthplace of more than a few excellent dramatist; Ramavriksha Benipuri , Rabindranath Tagore and M.Gopala Krishna Iyer  to name but three,  I was most definitely underestimating the reverence afforded to Shakespeare in this country that has such a fine literary heritage.

Unlike my previous trips to India, I can honestly say that to my surprise, Shakespeare has featured significantly during much of this most recent journey. This immersion in the works of the great bard began even before my arrival in the country. To my delight, on perusing the entertainment system on board the flight from Birmingham, I discovered a number of recordings of Shakespeare’s plays performed at the Globe Theatre in London and available to help with overcoming the tedium associated with a long haul flight. Between Birmingham and Bangalore, and then again on the return flight I was able to enjoy performances of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and even Henry VIII, this latter being a play I had never previously seen performed.

Once in Bangalore the Shakespeare theme continued as I noted that there have been several performances of the great man’s work in Indian cities to mark this anniversary of his demise. On the actual day of celebrations, the Hindu newspaper carried a number of articles about Shakespeare, including reports of events planned to be held in London, Stratford-upon-Avon and in various parts of India. There was also an article about an Emeritus Professor in Mysore who has a great passion for the Elizabethan dramatist and a huge collection of books and other artefacts associated with the great man and his story. During the evening of the 23rd April, a filmed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was broadcast on an Indian television channel, and international celebrations were reported on the television news. The respect in which Shakespeare is clearly held in India was fascinating to see and is perhaps one of the most positive aspects of English influence upon the country.

I suppose I should not have been so surprised to find this important Shakespearian anniversary being acknowledged here in Bangalore, having once seen an entertaining production of Macbeth at the Valley School near here, and also in company with my young friend Varsha having attended a somewhat surreal and satirical one man show called “Nothing Like Lear” performed in a Bangalore theatre.

Having noted that the Shakespeare commemorations would coincide with my April visit this year, I had planned a small celebration of my own to enjoy with students on our MA course. Thus it was that on this most auspicious occasion, after my far from professional efforts at reciting what is probably Shakespeare’s most celebrated sonnet (number 18), which begins with the oft quoted line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  we all indulged ourselves by consuming a magnificent chocolate cake. My audience were evenly divided between those who loved Shakespeare when encountered in their school years, and those who found the archaic English language impenetrable.  I am far from convinced that my own inadequate rendition of a Shakespeare sonnet will have done much to change the minds of the detractors, but I do know that the provision of chocolate cake was popular with all in attendance.

And should you think that Shakespeare and a chocolate cake are too much of a distraction from the serious business of study for a higher degree, I will call up the great bard in my defence:

                                                     “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Sir Toby Belch. Twelfth Night. Act 2, Scene 3.

 

Whilst my performance of Shakespeare would not have won any plaudits, the quality of the chocolate cake was greatly appreciated by all!

Whilst my performance of Shakespeare would not have won any plaudits, the quality of the chocolate cake was greatly appreciated by all!

 

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HEAR HOW SHAKESPEARE’S SONNET XVIII SHOULD BE RECITED, DO CLICK ON THE VIDEO CLIP BELOW

 

Macbeth with added parrots

Three weird sisters cavort their evil way around the stage

Three weird sisters cavort their evil way around the stage

 

Double, double toil and trouble,

Fire burn and cauldron bubble

 

I have long been an enthusiastic theatre goer, and over the years I have seen many fine productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Scottish Tragedy must be amongst the most regularly produced plays in the Shakespeare cannon, and with its combination of  a relatively straightforward story, bloody murders and supernatural beings has appeal to a wide range of audiences.

A few years ago with my colleague Anita I took a party of international students from the University of Northampton to a particularly gory and macabre staging of the play at the Globe in London. I had I thought, supported the students by telling them the story before hand, but could not have prepared them for the graphic depiction of the battle field from which Macbeth emerges victorious at the start of the play. I also recall a powerful performance of the lead role by Derek Jacobi with Christopher Ravenscroft playing Banquo at Stratford, a venue at which I saw a further rendition of the play more recently in the company of Sara, and my good friends Johnson, Tina and Philip. Though I would rate a production at Leicester in which Bernard Hill played Macbeth and Julie Walters his queen as the finest I have seen to date.

This evening, accompanied by my good colleagues Mary and Johnson we attended a memorable performance by students of the play, in the outdoor auditorium at the Valley School outside the city of Bangalore. Invited by my friend Satish, at the end of a day’s teaching, we escaped the fumes of the city and exchanged these for some clean forest air. The journey was most certainly worthwhile and provided for a most pleasant evening.

A simple, almost empty stage was canopied by trees, simply lit and well used by a young enthusiastic cast. The character of Macbeth was played by three different boys during the play, with two girls assuming the role of Lady Macbeth. Lines were delivered with authority and confidence and the choreography of dance and fight scenes was excellent. A group of young musicians added to the atmosphere with true panache and an appreciative audience regularly demonstrated their enthusiasm with generous applause. However, the show was certainly stolen by three excellent young actresses playing the role of the cackling weird sisters. These three dark clad harridans gyrated and shrieked around the stage like terrifying banshees intent on terrifying all who dared to cross their paths.

King Duncan and his entourage, unaware of the wicked deeds that are about to take place.

King Duncan and his entourage, unaware of the wicked deeds that are about to take place.

The play lacked nothing in terms of enthusiasm, but this was surpassed by the scenes at the end of the evening. When the performance was over and the cast of more than thirty youngsters who had given everything to make the play a success, could be seen cheering and hugging each other as they celebrated the end of a period of hard work and dedication through rehearsals over a number of weeks.

As someone who is more used to seeing Shakespearean productions on a professional indoor stage, there was much of novelty in this evening’s performance. Early in the evening, before the light had fully faded, green parrots regularly crossed above the stage, their shrieking calls, adding to the atmosphere. Dogs chased amongst the audience, though never offering a threat to equal that of the witches on stage. As darkness intensified and a moon provided an eerie glow, all of the typical calls of an Indian forest night surrounded the arena, and as Birnam Wood marched on Dunsinane, one sensed that the wildlife was moving with it.

Shakespeare provides challenges to the most accomplished thespians, and the ambition of these young actors and their teachers in taking on Macbeth was bold. However, the performance demonstrated what can be achieved when teachers and students join together with enthusiasm to tackle a classic work of art. I have seen numerous productions of this play, both professional and amateur over many years. The atmosphere and enthusiasm in evidence at The Valley tonight will ensure that this is one that stays in my memory, just as it will have enriched every one of the young cast.

Congratulations to all who were involved.