Rural Tamil Nadu meets British drama

There was an evening I remember in late June, when I sat in the staffroom finishing up some chores and heard the principal call out for me. I found her sitting at the table in the dining hall, that mischievous glint in her eyes letting on that she had something up her sleeve. I have an idea for your second play, she told me. We had been talking about it for a couple of days, wondering what to do with senior school kids for Annual Day and which script would be most appropriate. She called me over and asked me what I thought of Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice, she said. Just the court scene to be precise. I balked instinctively. Are you sure, I asked. She told me she was, and perhaps I could do an adaptation? I told her I would think about it.

And I did. I thought about juggling two plays and the logistical mess of one of them being written in 16th century English. I thought of whether audiences would be able to understand and relate, or whether Shakespeare would be assumed to be boring and banal. I thought for a long while and then decided, why ever not. I love Shakespearean drama and here was a chance to teach it, yet another opportunity that would hardly present itself to the traditional ESL classroom. So Merchant of Venice it was.

It was a few days before I got around to looking up the script online. ‘Just the court scene,’ it turned out, was quite the mammoth exercise. I told the principal we would do just the meat of it, but we would do it in the original language, perhaps slightly edited for length. Everyone I told asked me to think about it. Why would I pass up on the offer to just do it in present-day English? Why insist on outdated grammar, the struggle between ‘thy,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thou’? But no, I decided. If we were going down the Shakespeare hole, we would dive in head first.

And so we did. We did readings, found our Portia and Nerissa and Shylock, and did voice exercises. We did stage blocking, procured props, and struggled through the lines of dialogue. We told each other the story, practiced speaking slow enough for audiences to follow, and then rehearsed some more. By the time we were getting closer to Annual Day, Portia was answering quotidian questions about homework with ‘But the Jew must be merciful!’ and Shylock could be heard muttering ‘Ay, so says the bond’. As for me? Shakespeare would creep up on me unannounced, in moments that I was least expecting it. Phrases and words would drift into my head as I texted friends, lay in bed, even had a shower. I woke up with their voices in my head, wary of the one line each of them tripped up on, hearing Shylock’s tongue get tied up in knots as he tried to say ‘How much more elder are thou than thy looks!’ In my own 12th standard, Hamlet had been a text for Literature. Six years later, I was being haunted by another Shakespearean drama.

And then there was another one, an elongated, Indian adaptation of Peter Lancaster’s ‘Across the Road,’ a story of how a woman peers into her neighbour’s house spying on thieves only to realise they have in fact been looting her own bedroom. Through practice, I was unsure – the kids who were acting were younger, struggled more with English and intonation, and I wondered if they saw the humour in the lines themselves. And yet we persevered. We stole carpets and keys and picture frames. We made cardboard TVs and parrot cages and stole them too. We were the most well-practiced thieves you could ever imagine!

And then Saturday came. Amidst much sleep deprivation and confusion, we descended upon a city auditorium and it all began. Those next two hours were a personal lesson in faith. For every doubt that the students wouldn’t be able to stomach Shakespearean English, they improvised lines to cover up their faults and no one in the audience was the wiser for it. For every uncertainty that the younger children may not tap into the mood of the play, they had the audience in slips. For every person who sought me out at the end of the evening to congratulate me, my eleven actors proved that they can do British drama too, no matter which century it is from!

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