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Browning the bard


DESI TAKE: Paul Bhattacharjee as Benedick and Meera Syal as Beatrice in the play

It may be the bard and produced by no less than the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). But it's an adaptation with a distinct desi orientation and an overwhelmingly Indian-origin and not-so-well-known cast. Such efforts do not generally frequent London's coveted Westend.

But Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Iqbal Khan, who is of Pakistani descent, with Meera Syal - of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42 fame - as Beatrice and Paul Bhattacharjee, whose portfolio includes the Bond film Casino Royale and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as Benedick, has cracked the brown ceiling.

A Quarto edition of Much Ado appeared in 1600. But it was not until 1748 that it received genuine acclaim and became popular on stage. John Gielgud, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of the 20th century, starred as Benedick with Peggy Ashcroft as Beatrice. In 1993, Kenneth Branagh adapted the play for a movie in which he starred opposite Emma Thompson.

The play is about the witty sparring between Beatrice and Benedick (written mainly in prose) and a tragicomedy involving the courtship of Hero and Claudio (written principally in verse). It is as rich in its language as it is hilarious in its impact.
Instead of Italy, Khan's version is set in today's Delhi - though art director Tom Piper's haveli backdrop is not exactly contemporary. Indian costumes, a few Hindi words and stereotypical Indian mannerisms are inserted into the drama. The comic character of Dogberry is moulded into a Sikh constable. Indian music composed by Niraj Chag and directed by Hinal Pattani, and bhangra dance choreographed by Struan Leslie spice up the scenes.

To carry off Shakespeare is invariably challenging, especially in his home country. Many a legend from Laurence Olivier to Vanessa Redgrave have established an almost unattainable benchmark. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in Khan's play, the delivery of Shakespearean dialogue was less than impressive and the song-and-dance routines nowhere as spectacular as London's best musicals. Khan's actors range from graduates fresh out of drama school to more experienced hands who have been on stage for decades.

The director thinks there are parallels between early modern England and modern-day Delhi. "The hierarchical structures are similar;the relationships between masters and their servants are still present;the importance of honour;the centrality of women within that;the idea of bloodlines, and how daughters continue that. If a daughter is found to be iniquitous the bloodline is tainted. All of these ideas are absolutely still current in modern India. "

Khan adds: "It's very exciting to have Meera playing Beatrice because she has a great comedienne's instinct and technique, but at the same time, she is incredibly serious about her work as an actress.... . All of these things make her very suited to playing Beatrice. "

Bhattacharjee, he adds, is "incredibly skilled as an actor, and has played Shakespeare before at the RSC". Both he and Syal acquit themselves adequately. Sagar Arya holds his own as Claudio in his RSC debut. Amara Karan as Hero, though, is, arguably, miscast.

Apart from the uneven quality of the dialogue in terms of clarity, diction and modulation, the register is somewhere between Alec Guinness' caricature of Professor Godbole in David Lean's A Passage to India and current British-Asian English. But overall, there is, perhaps, to an undemanding audience a feel good factor.

Britain's Times newspaper critic wrote: "A perfect setting. Meera Syal is a wonderful Beatrice, Paul Bhattacharjee is her irresistible Benedick. " The Daily Mail's impression was that it was "a histrionic melodrama right out of Bollywood". The British-Indian weekly Eastern Eye perhaps hit the nail on the head. "A Shakespeare play tailor-made for British-Asian audiences, " it pronounced.

At the end of the day, proof of the pudding will surface at the box office. If crowds flock to the Noel Coward to convert the experiment into a winner, there could well be more Bollywoodisation of Shakespeare in the future. Purists may frown. But in these recession-hit times, market forces rather than aesthetics may determine the immortal playwright's future.

'Much Ado' is on at Covent Gardens' Noel Coward Theatre, London, for five weeks up to October 27

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