Bard comes to Bollywood
Paul Taylor

Neha Dubey to play Olivia
Neha Dubey to play Olivia

Twelfth Night takes a passage to India in Stephen Beresford’s new production. Monsoon rain lashes down on a set of shuttered houses, the design tilted at a tipsy angle redolent of the prevailing lack of emotional equilibrium. Orsino (Raza Jaffrey) listens to an old vinyl record of Indian music and the oppressive tropical night here superbly intensifies the hot-house atmosphere of frustrated, in-love-with-love romanticism. Then from the dark depths of the stage, the dazed figure of the shipwrecked Viola (Shereen Martineau) scrambles forward. Not since Steven Pimlott’s water-logged Sheffield production, which had flaming Christmas trees floating in the flood, have I seen a Twelfth Night with such potential for evocatively fusing setting and psychology.

Certainly, this revival persuades you that transferring the play to India is an inspired idea, but it also, I’m afraid, leaves you wishing that the concept had been carried out with, well, more inspiration. I applaud Beresford’s wish to refresh our sense of the piece by relocating it in a modern culture where equivalents to the class difference and religious customs in Shakespeare still vibrantly persist.

He presents us with a world where it makes sense for Neha Dubey’s Olivia to set up a full shrine to her dead brother and to retreat behind a veil and where that emotionally freelance fool, Feste (arrestingly played by Kulvinder Ghir) now acts as an irreverent irritant to his betters in the traditional role of the Baul singer, a nomadic Bengali minstrel and soothsayer. This new position — of being in the household but not of it — gives a sharper edge to the character’s perceptive detachment.

Often, though, excellent fancies are fluffed in the execution. With his painfully absurd social and amatory pretensions, the figure of the steward, Malvolio, takes to the Indian caste system like a duck to water. What better way of presenting him than as a snob, a stickler for the distinctions that he dreams will one day be razed by love? The trouble, though, is that Paul Bhattacharjee’s sad and rather affecting portrayal transmits far too little of the maddening bumptiousness and cold repression of the man.

At the start of the second half, Kulvinder Ghir’s Feste performs a wonderfully teasing dance in drag where he guys the melodramatic postures of Bollywood movies. He keeps trying to pull the disguised Viola into the proceedings and for once there’s a genuine frisson of sexual ambiguity in a production that otherwise seems to be almost embarrassed by the implications of this comedy’s cross-dressing confusions. The show has an attractive spirit (which captivated my 12-year-old companion): at the moment, though, it doesn’t quite have the courage of its best convictions.

The Independent