The Tempest, perhaps Shakespeare's last play, is often thought to be his wildest, most eccentric offering to the world. From 1904 when British actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree portrayed the character of Caliban as a caveman, to 2012 when Theatre Royal Haymarket's production dug deep for spiritual undertones, it has always been subject to bizarre interpretations. But the quirkiest of them all in our post-modern times has to be one in which Prospero transforms into a Malayalam speaking Swami, Caliban hails from an English working class background and Ariel is more Indian than elfin.
The Tempest has been infused with a fresh breath of life with the French theatre company, Footsbarn's intriguing interpretation, which they have brought to India for the first time this month. Constructed in collaboration with Trivandrum-based Abhinaya Theatre Company two years ago, Indian Tempest is called so simply because it has a part-Indian cast and is inspired by Kerala. "We chanced upon Abhinaya Theatre Company back in 1994 when we were staging Romeo and Juliet. We worked on an adaptation of Homer's La Odyssey with them then and wanted to work with them again," recalls Paddy Hayter, artistic director of Footsbarn Theatre.
Although they stay faithful to Shakespeare in most ways, plotline and lines included, it is really the play’s polyglot nature, combined with the multiple techniques they employ, that makes it a joy to witness
Although they stay faithful to Shakespeare in most ways, plotline and lines included, it is really the play's polyglot nature, combined with the multiple techniques they employ, that makes it a joy to witness. It starts off with some exquisite shadow play where Ariel, holding a dwarfed ship, dances behind a white screen, to symbolise the first catastrophe of the narrative. Elaborate costumes and make-up impart all the characters, an other-worldly quality – Caliban wears a sack, and has dreadlocks standing up at end; Ferdinand looks suspiciously close to Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean; and Prospero's evil brother Antonio and his friend Alonso are made to look like emperors of Central Asian descent.
When all these idiosyncratic characters begin talking and singing in a jumble of English, French, Hindi, Malayalam and Sanskrit, the adaptation acquires a whole new level of madness. "We have been working with mixed language as a technique for quite a few years now. Between different cultures, we do not speak the same language, but have the same emotions. Subtitles distract the public, splitting the focus," explains Hayter.
A critique of colonialism is visible in the inversion of master-slave roles, with Prospero as Indian and Caliban an Englishman, in the play. So is the notion of a 'play within the play', the trope of a 'spectacle' that is much talked about where Shakespeare is concerned. But Hayter says interpretation belongs to the public. "We haven't even tried to make any statements – our job is simply to tell the story," he points out.
It is unfortunate that the company could not bring their famed tent along for this tour. "The tent has made us, just as we make the play for the tent. It brings our audience and the actors closer," he explains. But he says the dream to bring the tent, an embodiment of the spirit of carnivals, lives strong.