Joy Fernandes plays Bottom in Tim Supple’s India-Sri Lanka production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The Mumbai- based actor recounts what it’s like to work in a play that ran 10 weeks straight, six days a week, in the UK.
Week 1: Getting used to each other
We are in Puducherry, at Veenapani Chawla’s beautiful theatre centre, Adishakti, rehearsing before we head back to London and Stratford for a punishing schedule: 10 non-stop weeks of performing, six days a week, with an extra matinee show thrown in. It will be gruelling and we need to limber up and get fit.
We wake up every morning, wolf down some biscuits and fruits and rush off to the theatre for yoga and kallari exercises. I can’t get over the fact that it is like going off to work every morning. For a theatre person who gets asked questions such as “Theek hai theatre karte ho, par karte kya ho?” (so you do theatre, but what do you really do?), a 9-5 job is the ultimate thrill.
The group Tim Supple has lined up for the play is amazing. Apart from doing theatre, Tapan Das from Kolkata sells fish. And practises Thang Ta. Then there are the street acrobats from New Delhi.
Suppleji, as we like to call him in our giggly moments, wants to let go of all Shakespearean conventions and transform the fantasy into a stage spectacle using dance, music, acting, circus and street theatre from across India. Only half the dialogues are in English, the rest is performed in Indian languages such as Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Sanskrit and even Malaysian and Sinhalese.
It is completely mad and there are several communities living together, so there is a lot of happy ribbing about stereotypes. I mean, after the initial excitement of having idli and dosa every morning dies down, the crew from the north starts getting tetchy. The lunch is vegetarian and often cooked in coconut oil. The northwalas can’t deal with it: “Coconut oil goes on the head. How do you cook with it?” is their daily whine. But then, the friendships are forged and they last till date.
Week 2: The weather turns
We are in London and, strangely, the weather is great. There is cricket and football to keep fit. We get cramps, pull nerves, injure legs, but keep at it because it is necessary to be fighting fit for the play when the performances start next week.
We start rehearsing at Roundhouse in Camden—and realize the magnitude of the assignment. It is a killer theatre. It is what is called a thrust stage, flanked by audiences on three sides. And it is really huge. To add to everything, the London weather has turned nasty. There are totally unexpected snow showers and all of us Mumbai types are freaking out. Not one of us has ever owned any warm clothes. And we scramble to buy some. But in the theatre, there is no respite. Most of the cast is wandering around in thin, loose shifts. Puck has to stay in a kachha all the time. And the fairies are half naked anyway. There is a scene where I am lying for a long time on the stage, made of mud, while the donkey turns into a man. I am chilled to the bone and when I get up, I find that I have lost my voice.
Weeks 3-9: The audience
The show starts and the first night is the press night. This is critical because the reviews bring in the ticket sales. This is an English play with a cast of Indians and one Sri Lankan, with dialogues spoken in seven different languages. We heave a sigh of relief when we see the newspapers the next morning. The critics love the play, and believe me, London critics can be merciless. Benedict Nightingale of The Times compares it to Peter Brook’s take on the play in 1970. Michael Billington of The Guardian raves about its visual brilliance. And Alice Jones of The Independent says though she could not follow some of the wordplay, she likes the idea that Shakespeare’s sacred word “was thrown off in favour of something far more fluid, more visceral”. Charles Spencer of The Telegraph is so fascinated by the production that he “left the theatre wanting to catch the next flight to Bombay (Mumbai) to rekindle my own dormant love affair with the subcontinent”.
Then, the crowds start pouring in. We are almost house– full, even on Mondays. Now, that is a weird experience for an Indian actor, doing theatre on a Monday. We are acting to 1,000–1,200 viewers every day. It is an amazing experience. Of course, a hit comedy will bring in crowds at Bhaidas or Shanmukhananda, too, but that is straight stand-and-deliver lines type of acting.
We live in cottages. My four-year-old daughter Jonina and wife Nilufer are with me and my wife coaches the street acrobats from New Delhi, Ram and Lakhan. We have to change two tubes to get to the theatre every day and, as I said, it is like commuting to work every day, a weird experience for an actor from India.
There are crises. P.R. Jijoy, a Malayalee who plays Oberon, develops kidney stones and has to be rushed to hospital. Jaikumar, a Tamil, takes his place. The few Malayalam lines now have to be done in Tamil. The performances are highly physical and injuries are common. I crack my knees very badly hanging from a bower. So, I have to strap them and work. I must have reached and crossed the pain threshold several times. And that is the story with everyone.
Weeks 9-13: Another town, another stage
We move to Stratford. This is familiar territory because we had worked here during the first trip we made to the UK. We get to stay in lovely cottages facing the river and the city has a fairy-tale setting, a tribute to Shakespeare. Across our cottage is a carousel and I blow up a lot of per diem taking my daughter across. We are performing at The Swan Theatre, again a thrust stage, but much smaller than Roundhouse. The people are warm and life becomes a lot easier than in London. There is a lot of interest in the play and we are house–full even before we reach Stratford. This is a never-before experience for most of us. The toughest part of being in a travelling, long–running play is that it is very easy to slip into complacence. And that can really kill a play. So Tim is constantly working at reworking the play. And the effort shows because every time the play has something fresh in it, and the enthusiasm does not die.
Back home and off again
We are back in India for a two–month break. We return to London in September and start a nine–city tour that will go on till November. This is going to be really tough because there is rehearsing, acting and travelling. We are back in November for the January shows in India. Then we head for the US and Canada, and from there, to Europe. There is no sign of respite till October 2008. But for all that, we can’t even think of the play coming to an end.
As told to Malini Nair. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org