March 6 2015
Tara Arts lead a touring production with a highly imaginative and contemporary reintrepretation of a Shakespeare classic…
By Tasha Mathur
FROM drag queens as witches to ‘King Duncan’ as head of an Indian household, director Jatinder Verma has brought some Indian spice to theatres across the UK in this unique interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic “Macbeth”.
The original story of “Macbeth“, one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, consists of soldier Macbeth, being given a prophecy by three witches that he will become King of Scotland. From then on, Macbeth is driven by ambition and greed to wrest the kingdom from King Duncan.
Tara Arts which lead the new ‘Black Theatre Live’ intiative for this exclusive production, fuses East and West and delivers a drama with more music and movement than in the original Shakespeare.
www.asianculturevulture.com caught up with actor Ralph Birtwell (pictured below) in between rehearsals and early performances to find out more about his role as a hijra (a modern day Indian drag queen) in the play.
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): What were your initial thoughts when you heard about Jatinder Verma’s unique interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”?
Ralph Birtwell (RB): I was incredibly excited by it and the opportunity to work for an Asian Theatre company, Tara Arts. I’ve wanted to work with them for quite a while. The thing that really attracted me to take on the job was the challenge of playing a hijra. They are the three witches from “Macbeth”. It’s actually a really clever idea that Jatinder has chosen to do. What I thought was quite clever was that when you go back to Shakespeare’s days, all the female roles were actually played by men so I found that quite challenging and an exciting take on the play. I’ve never actually had to ‘drag up’.
ACV: How did you prepare for the role?
RB: We did a workshop of the play in November with an Indian choreographer where we really had to get in touch with our feminine side, through various movements. Because the hijras in Mumbai are basically transgender drag queens, we had to do a lot of movement and get used to the costumes. I’m wearing a skirt and a blouse with women’s wigs to put on…it’s really good fun! What’s also interesting and one of the reasons why it worked so well to have the witches as hijras is that in modern day Mumbai, everyone looks up to them. They do blessings at births, funerals and weddings. They’ve got this sort of mysterious, supernatural quality about them anyway so it was a great idea of Jatinder’s to have the witches as hijras.
ACV: As well as playing a hijra, you also play the contrasting role of King Duncan. How do you manage switching between such different roles within the play?
RB: Yes, there are really quick costume changes. The play opens with me being a witch and then in the scene immediately after that, I’m playing King Duncan! There are some manic quick changes and you just have to have you wits about you. In rehearsals, I had a lot of time to work out the characters and what Jatinder wanted. Because the play is set in a contemporary Asian family, we had to look at how all the characters would work in a modern context in a family household. So, Jatinder wanted Duncan to be looked up to as a boss in a company rather than a King. It’s easier for people to get the gist of it in a modern context.
ACV: With such a unique interpretation of the play, how has Jatinder Verma attempted to share this vision with the cast?
RB: It’s been full on, but thoroughly enjoyable and immensely rewarding. He’s a great director who had a total picture of how he wanted it look at the end. Initially, we had five weeks rehearsals. So to begin with, we all sat around the table, reading through the play. And the main aspect that Jatinder wanted us to concentrate was the text. Jatinder was always really drilling that into us; into serving the text rather than our acting.
It’s a cliché to say a company becomes like a family, but it’s actually true. You’re all in the same boat being away from home. It brings everyone together to work well on stage and fortunately we all get on really well. It’s a small company with only eight actors and one percussionist.
ACV: You’ve worked on a range of cross-cultural productions from “East is East” to “Bombay Dreams”. There have been some recent debates on the lack of diversity within the current theatre industry. What are your thoughts on this?
RB: I’m half Pakistani and my Mum is English so I don’t know if that’s been an advantage or disadvantage. I left drama school in 1993 and there weren’t that many parts for ethnic actors. I think things are only starting to change now and Tara Arts is a really good company for that. For instance, they have partnered up with others for Black Theatre Lives which is co-producing this production of “Macbeth”. Tara Arts are trying to turn it all around and have more Asian parts and Asian interpretations, which Asian communities can then relate to as well. It then also reflects the multicultural society that we live in today. I think it’s great that we’re going to these regional locations where there are Asian communities and we can do ‘Shakespeare’ for them. It’s still early days but things are starting to change and long may it continue.
Founded in 1977, Tara Arts has always aimed to provide a space for cross-cultural theatre in London. With their base in Earlsfield, south London, undergoing major refurbishment and expansion, the company is operating on the road.
Black Theatre Live is a new initiative pioneered by Tara Arts in partnership with Derby Theatre, Queens Hall (Hexham), the Lighthouse (Poole), Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Theatre Royal Margate and Stratford Circus (London). It is a three-year programme and supported by the Arts Council England through its Strategic Touring Funds scheme. It is designed to give young companies the chance to work with new, emerging and diverse talent and engage those communities in which those theatres are based, in imaginative and non-traditional ways.
For more info:www.tara-arts.com