Designer's Dreams and Doodles

Producer's perspective

March 27, 2012

power cablesRSC Producer Kevin Fitzmaurice offers his perspective on the recent research trip to India for Much Ado About Nothing...

I'm working on Much Ado About Nothing as part of the RSC's contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival. We've got a strong line up to get started: Meera Syal is playing Beatrice, Iqbal Khan is directing and Tom Piper has agreed to design the set.

The production is going to be set in contemporary India, and more specifically, the Punjab and/or Delhi. We want to make sure we do the ground work so that we can be as true to the real India as possible. We need to understand it, to get a real sense of how the country is developing so rapidly today, and the only way to do that is to undergo a research trip.

With a collision of schedules and other practical limitations (like money and Christmas) we have to crash into Delhi, find out as much as we possibly can in just five days, and get then return to the UK. Tom and I will fly out on 15th December and Iqbal will follow a day later, just as soon as he's opened his latest show in London. We can only do this trip once, so we need to hit the ground running.

Preliminary phone calls to friends and colleagues help us to find a tour guide and logistical support. Oliver Saurabh Sinclair comes highly recommended as an excellent guide and facilitator. He has experience of working alongside British film crews on nature documentaries in the jungles, pan-Indian road trips with writers and political journalists across the city of Delhi. He's recently finished a road trip with Hardeep Singh Kohli, who sings his praises and makes the introduction...

Thursday/Friday December 15/16 2011
After a month of planning Tom and I land in Delhi in the middle of the night. It's a relief to find that our driver is at the terminal and that the Hotel is expecting us. Step One completed!

On our first day, Oliver takes us on an accelerated introduction of Lutyens Delhi. We see so many major sites, like India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan and the surrounding government buildings. It's organised and structured city planning on a scale I've never seen. It's also a gentle yet deceptive introduction to how the city works. After checking in with the British Council, we also visit the magnificent Imperial Hotel for some colonial excess, and one of the highlights of our day is a visit to an amazing 18th Century observatory called Jantar Mantar.

Our last visit of the day is as night falls in to our first street market and a beautiful and serene Tibetan monastery retreat Majnu Ka Tila.

As we wind down we feel we've found out an enormous amount about the city and the people in just 10 hours, and we've begun to strike a rapport with Oliver. Now I think we are all looking forward to the arrival of Iqbal to help begin to focus down into the areas that will help with the show...

Saturday December 17
We welcome Iqbal at breakfast, and spend an hour with Oliver discussing the vision for the show. Iqbal and Tom begin to sketch wealthy middle class families, enclosed communities, military context and over everything the contrast in northern India between the romanticised old world and the new we can are beginning to clearly see.

Oliver kicks off by taking us to Old Delhi. We walk through Chandni Chowk, talk with elders at Sunehri Masjid, absorb the amazing spice market, take rickshaw rides through narrow lanes and before we know it, it's mid-afternoon and we are sampling the best vegetable samosas I've ever tasted in my life and it's mid-afternoon.

Iqbal and Oliver are getting into their stride, and another conversation leads Oliver to take us to one of his his cousins who specialises in wedding make-up. The salon is in Lajpat Nagar, this is a newer neighbourhood with more money. In it, Iqbal feels something of the flavour of the world he's interested in, and Tom sticks around to film the preparations, while Iqbal and I return to the hotel to meet a renowned actor/director for possible involvement in the show.

When Tom returns to the hotel, he comes with an invite to the wedding party, that evening, in a swanky Country Club outside of town. In the evening we trek out there, chatting on the way with our dedicated driver Ram, who tells us all about his arranged marriage when he was 16 to his 14 year old bride. Seventeen years later he's got three kids and is very pleased with his parents' selection for him.

Sunday December 18
With no meetings today we concentrate of covering three more elements of the city. We start in Nizamuddin and visit Amir Khusrau's intimate tombs from the 14th century. They are still very much alive as shrines for the Sufi faithful. They are also magnets for tourists and therefore for beggars and the desperately poor who follow us down alleys asking for change. It's troubling. We are advised not to give money, which makes sense, but you know that a couple of pennies to you will be a meal for the beggar.

We head on to Humayun's Tomb. It's a world heritage site with manicured lawns, built on an epic scale in 16th century, for the Mughal Emperor, and a model for the Taj Mahal. It's beautiful and impressive, but not helpful for the show.

We need an hour of conversation in the garden with Iqbal working through the plays scenarios brings the day into focus. Where would the army live, how would they connect to the community that welcomes them? Such questions elicit a wealth of useful and fascinating responses from Oliver, and we're back on track.

As dusk falls, we are on our way to the massive satellite city of Gurgaon. A soulless metropolis set of miles of wasteland, it's like an SF vision of the future where no-one with any money sets foot outside, and all of the underclasses trample the dusty margins eating street food and sleeping in temporary shelters. A simplistic European view, but we all feel it and our hearts sink.

I ask Ram what he thinks. Is this his dream or would he rather live in Delhi? For him this is an aspiration. This is what working hard can buy you. Entertainment comes through the Las Vegas-like Kingdom of Dreams, an aircraft hanger scale, fibreglass and plastic warehouse of contemporary gift shops, fast-food booths and a couple of theatres, one featuring a Bollywood musical Zangoora. We have tickets, and escape for a couple of hours. The dancing is amazing, the spectacle spectacular, and the whole thing is globally generic and empty in every way.

Monday 19
We have one of the key meetings of the trip in the morning with Sanjana Kapur. Sanjana is Director of Prithvi Theatre and everyone tells us she is one of the best connected figures in Indian Theatre. We want to pick her brain for casting ideas, and get her view on what it is we are attempting with the show. She is charming and attentive, seems to support the ideas that underpin the projects, and comes up with several helpful ideas. She also tells us how much the RSC's work is missed in India and how she hopes that we'll be back with a show sometime soon.

We head out to more derelict archaeological sites, visit some interesting neighbourhoods and are meet a musician and have lunch with a costume designer that Oliver has somehow connected into while we've been with him.

More meetings are lined up for our final day, and names continue to trickle in of strong stage actors who might be right for us.

Tuesday 20th December:

Our final full day in Delhi starts with a visit and tour of the National School of Drama. We have a summary of its history, and get to take part in a workshop rehearsal with a dynamic young Cape Town director, ending our visit singing a township song in Xhosa with a company of Indian actors. A special moment.

Then we visit the Baha'i House of Worship. It's a monumental 80's building reminiscent of Sydney opera House, but shaped like a lotus flower. All religions are welcome to pray and meditate. It's somehow symbolic of the way many faiths appear to inter-relate in Delhi. It's a tricky and sensitive area, but we've visited houses of worship for several faiths during our visit and have felt welcomed in them all.

Back at the National School of Drama we meet the Director, Anuradha Kapur, and once more explain the project and our hope of securing a creative contributor to the show and a leading actor to play opposite Meera. Again we are met with thoughtfulness and engagement. Our list of strong actors is focussing in on a handful of names – many already familiar to Iqbal. Anuradha also expresses a desire in India for RSC work and we have an interesting conversation about how there might be some grassroots way to engage. I hope we can make something practical of it when we return to Stratford.

We are all feeling pretty exhausted but there is more to come with a wonderful meeting with a magnificent Punjabi businessman who shares his stories and opinion with complete authority and a booming voice. Then finally we take a trip to an artists' retreat in a gated suburb to watch a rare screening of 'Train to Pakistan' and eat another delicious vegetarian Indian meal with apparently wealthy Delhi-ites - it sort of feels like being in an exotic Notting Hill.

Back at the hotel we collect thoughts and review the trip. It's been everything I'd hoped it would be. Tom and Iqbal are full of thoughts and ideas. Preconceptions have been demolished and a real sense of the world they want to use as the background for the play is beginning to take shape. But both are determined to ultimately focus on the play. They've got a wonderful beginning to creating their settings, but in the end Shakespeare creates the world they will work within. It's a healthy and encouraging view. I can't wait for the next stages...

by Kevin Fitxmaurice  |  No comments yet

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