When theatre director Iqbal Khan was approached by the Royal Shakespeare Company to adapt one of their plays, giving it an Indian setting was not a remit of theirs, nor was it something he wanted to do. However, the more he worked on it, the more he realised it was the perfect fit. But Mr Khan’s target remains to create a work of excellence, not one that’s just ‘painted brown.’
I was given the opportunity to sit through rehearsals of the play, and what I witnessed was a delight - a warm production team and a stellar cast of twenty-one of the UK’s finest British-Asian actors, with a fine camaraderie between them all both on and off stage. The snapshots of the set design I was treated to also looked promisingly beautiful. I spoke to Mr Khan about the play, what inspired him and how he hopes to retell the story.
For those not familiar with Much Ado About Nothing, what is the play about?
The play begins with the military coming back from the war, stopping by a landowner’s house called Leonato. Don Pedro who leads the military, knows Leonato who welcomes him in, and the play is about these military men seeking to engage with civilian life and therefore domestic relationships – love and all that stuff.
The main plot centres on two relationships: the young love that’s dramatised by Hero and Claudio, and the more mature relationship between Beatrice and Benedict, who appear to hate each other at the beginning. Their jousts with each other are tremendously entertaining but we know they come from a similar place. They’ve both been betrayed, they both carry scars.
But there is a complicated factor – the brother of Don Pedro, Don John, is an evil figure, and he plots to undermine the wedding of Hero and Claudio. Through a trick, he persuades Claudio and Don Pedro on the eve of Hero’s wedding that she is making love with another man. The play then is really about if we can find a way to bring these young lovers together? Will Beatrice and Benedict ever find a way to have a relationship?
The reason why the play is called ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is because almost every big scene is about one kind of trick or another and things that come out of nothing – out of lies, out of untruths, and real relationships developing out of that.
What was it that attracted you most to the play?
The play is a definition for me for what I find great about Shakespearean comedy – its ambiguity, its complexity, it nuance. And I think particularly with this play, its tremendously well structured and very lean. In my opinion, I think it’s Shakespeare’s most successful and most complex comedy. We are really trying to play the truth of it and the darkness that’s inherent within it too.
Was that the main reason you chose it over other works of Shakespeare?
When the Royal Shakespeare Company approached me to do something at the RSC, we couldn’t decide what that ‘something’ was. Meera (Syal) was particularly excited about doing The Taming of the Shrew when the RSC suggested the potential of Much Ado About Nothing. I like both, not just because they’re great plays, but because they lend themselves quite easily to an Indian context, though the RSC didn’t make that a condition. Initially, I had a few reservations about that, because I thought, well, I don’t want to do the exotic thing. I’d rather excavate the play properly and do a work of excellence, not a work that’s painted brown.
So I thought about it for quite a long time, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that modern India would be a tremendous lens through which to view this play. The play deals so much with honour - the sense of duty of the younger daughter, the independence of an older women within a hierarchal, patriarchal society, the relationships between the different hierarchies within society, the servant class and the master class… all of that stuff. And the courtship rituals in the play are very similar to those that still pertain to India. I don’t know of a closer parallel to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England than modern India. It lends itself so clearly as a way of excavating the play and dramatising it.
Other than the setting, are there any major changes that you’ve made to the original play?
I’ve made some structural changes in the story in order to help with the urgency of storytelling for a modern audience. I’ve introduced some quite exotic dances into the play with a live band. The audience will probably come into the theatre expecting an authentic Indian sound, but my composer Nirag Chag (who also composed the music for All In Good Time) and I worked on a sound world that has some authentic instrumentation but also has many modern instruments, working as a fusion. It should be quite interesting.
In terms of changing the play, I’ve tried not to do that. I’ve tried as much as I can to serve the play and communicate it as urgently, honestly and vividly as I can with my actors.
What would you say your greatest challenges have been in bringing it to the stage?
Well, I have to prepare twenty-one actors in a room within six weeks, which feels like a long time, but actually it’s a massive play, and the scale in which we’re trying to make it happen is an enormous challenge. All of these twenty-one actors have their own processes and their own kind of language. One thing I’ve tried to do is to create a completely convincing world, even in the smallest details, like the smaller characters that populate the household. I’ve given a lot of time to those people, insuring that all of these actors are making space for each other, developing appropriately – that’s not easy, that’s a big challenge.
But it’s also a fantastic opportunity. These are twenty-one Asian actors performing at the RSC. It’s been a while since that’s happened. It’s a real opportunity to advocate for a certain kind of work. By that, I don’t mean ‘brown’ work at the RSC, but to have artists with a diverse background coming and making a work of excellence is a real opportunity to introduce new faces into theatre. It’s also great to do Shakespeare in an Indian accent, and show that there’s actually an enormous muscularity, clarity and musicality in doing it that way.
Despite Shakespeare being a very British institute, the setting is Indian and the actors are all Asian. Who would you say your core audience for this would be?
I don’t think this is appreciated enough, but I personally think that Shakespeare’s work is unique - if it’s done well, then it clearly speaks to everyone. I don’t think you need any education to get it. It’s visceral, primitive stuff. It’s the actor’s job to make what reads as complicated sound and feel completely clear.
The work that we’re doing on this, I hope will appeal to traditional audiences and show them a play they love, but refreshed and given a new spin. I also want to show audiences that are not familiar with the work that it can also speak to them, and their world experiences. And then I’d also like to show new audiences how vivid an experience it can be to be at a live event. So I hope it will ultimately speak to all audiences for different reasons.
One of the things about our design is, the moment you come into the theatre – not the theatre space, but the building – it will be a really immersive experience from the beginning to the end. So you don’t leave the story, when you come out during the interval. You’re constantly within this tremendously compelling world. The minute the door is opened to the building, the audience are in the world of the play up to the minute they leave.
What would you say are your main influences behind your vision? Is there quite a Bollywood aesthetic to it?
Um no (laughs). I felt the pressure to resist doing anything aesthetic with it. There are Bollywood elements in it that are sometimes used ironically, but ultimately we are trying to construct a world that is authentic to modern day Delhi. I wish to make it feel absolutely compelling and real. Obviously it’s an Indian world but I’d rather that people said it’s a great production of Much Ado than that was a great ‘Indian’ production of it.
As an artist, you’re influenced by everything you see, but part of your journey as a creative artist is to free yourself from those influences and hopefully discover something new. I’m sure I was influenced by other Shakespeare plays, other performances of Much Ado, lots of different films and theatre plays I’ve seen – not necessarily Asian. But I hope that at the end of it, we will have created something that feels original.
Are there any hopes to take the play to India?
I’d love that! At the moment, there are no specific plans to take it abroad. We went to Delhi before we started rehearsing and spoke to theatre practitioners there, and they were incredibly keen to work with the RSC, whether the work was Indian or not. A big part of it is how the audience respond to what we’ve created over here. If there’s an appetite for it, then I’m sure the RSC would be happy to satisfy that appetite.
Much Ado About Nothing will play at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford between 26 July and 15 September, then at the Noel Coward Theatre, London between 22 September and 27 October. Click HERE for more details.