April 19 2014
Once a famous film, a veteran actor sets out on a unique journey to change perceptions of the great bard…
AS WE APPROACH the 450th birthday celebrations (April 23) for William Shakespeare, one man has embarked on a special mission taking the bard to India.
Madhav Sharma, a veteran of the British stage, film and television, for more than 50 years, believes he is the first Indian-origin actor from Britain to be doing Shakespeare in India.
He will tour three cities with his one-man production, “Bharat, Blighty & the Bard”, which borrows heavily from the works of the 16th century English playwright and one-time actor.
It is a 75-minute or so show that weaves Shakespeare’s works with themes that have touched on Sharma’s own life.
And what a rich life it’s been – Sharma’s first acting experience was with a famous Shakespearian touring company in India, he then came to England when he was 20 and trained at RADA before establishing a long career as an actor.
A Soho striptease artist – as she might have been referred to in her day – from Coventry called Pam lent him money to get to an audition at RADA (probably the most prestigious drama college you could attend), from which he received a scholarship. This kind of jaunty anecdote no doubt finds its way into Sharma’s production.
“Shakespeare’s voice speaks for all of us, and to all of us, whether of war and wooing, whether of law or love, whether of marriage or madness,” Sharma writes in a preamble to his tour which begins on Wednesday (April 23) in Kochi in Kerala.
He will be there for a week before leaving for Bangalore and Kolkata, with each city hosting him a week.
There will also be workshops and special sessions for schoolchildren, who can call upon Sharma and the expertise and knowledge of Miranda Lapworth, his director, who is travelling with him on the first leg to Kochi and Bangalore.
Before jetting to India, Sharma told us from his Suffolk home just why he conceived the show and what a thrill it was for him to take his passion to people who not only shared it, but wanted to spread the word about England’s most famous writer.
It was growing up in India in Bangalore, Calcutta (as it was then) and Pune (Poona back then), that his connection with Shakespeare first began to accrete.
He told www.asianculturevulture.com “Why would a little South Indian boy’s life change because of Shakespeare – the point is to show how Shakespeare is relevant to everybody.
“Most people think Shakespeare is nothing to do with them, it’s taught badly in school, it’s a difficult language, well it’s NOT – the basic purpose of the show is to show that Shakespeare belongs to everyone.”
Sharma started his career with the famous Shakespearana touring company led by Geoffrey Kendal, father of Felicity (of the 1970s British comedy TV series, “The Good Life” fame).
Kendal’s daughter Jennifer married Shashi Kapoor from the iconic Bollywood Kapoor family and he too joined Shakespearana and the company undertook many tours around India, playing in remote places and small villages. A film called “Shakespeare Wallah” (1965) with Shashi and Felicity in it is based on the experiences of Shakespearana.
It was as a young man in Bombay that Sharma’s professional association with Shakespeare first began.
Sharma was highly educated with degrees in both physics and English but had an uncertain air of what to do with his life.
“While working in a bookshop in Bombay, I met someone from the Shakespearana international theatre company. It was run by Felicity Kendal’s parents.
“I joined them and went around the far east of India on tour for about two years doing Shakespeare with them.
“My show is about that and how encountering Shakespeare completely changed my life.
“I didn’t really know what to do, I was the same age as Shakespeare was, when he decided to go to London (from Stratford-Upon-Avon) to become an actor – the parallels between Shakespeare’s life and mine are incredible.
“I was inspired by Shakespeare and maybe someone else will be – it’s the story of my life and Shakespeare has a lot to say.
“There are about 15-20 speeches and when anything has happened in my life, Shakespeare has something to say about it.”
Coming to England when he was 20, he found work as a doorman to a Soho strip club and it was where he met Pam, an early benefactor.
The idea for the “Bharat, Blighty & The Bard” tour came earlier this year after a visit to Kochi in late 2013. He explained how the word blighty (slang for Britain) is derived from a Hindi expression, and the colonials adapted it to ‘Blighty’. Bharat is the ancient name for India.
“I got invited to go there by the Kochi Reading Group for the 450th celebrations – they were going to do it anyway, they’ve got an open group which will be performing Elizabethan songs and they were very excited that they had met a professional actor.”
In his time, Sharma has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the National Theatre (NT) and has done many parts in the West End, regional theatre and TV and film.
His Indian origins and his own early life in India, he felt, would mean far more to the audiences than an English actor doing Shakespeare.
“The kids can see me – I used to be like them.
“I want to return Shakespeare to the people and I want to show them that Shakespeare belongs to them and I want ‘Jai Singh to feel Shakespeare belongs to me’.”
He feels much of the emphasis on Shakespeare has become too academic and stuffy and divorced from the concerns of Shakespeare’s own life and work.
“I don’t believe Shakespeare was an elitist, he was a working class Midlands lad who wrote for the working classes, as well as for the toffs.
“People make it all holy and it has to be done in this strange voice – it doesn’t have to be.
“Shakespeare is for all nationalities, it can be for any race or nation, that’s the flag I’ve been fighting for 50 years.
“There is multiculturalism in the plays. I just think we need to be bold in the way we do it – and stop being so Cambridge focused and have this concept that it’s orientated towards the upper middle class – it’s tosh.”
But these ideas would have remained just that without the help and support of several groups and individuals.
“When the Kochi Reading Group invited me, there was no money. And it was January (2014) and there were reasons why it couldn’t be done.”
But Sharma said help from Priti Patel MP, UK diaspora champion, Virander Paul, India’s deputy high commissioner to the UK, and individuals from the RSC and NT made the project possible and they have also helped with props, costumes and promotional material.
It was secured with financial backing from the British Council and also has received the backing of the Promotion of English Trust, and The Backstage Trust.
“I am not doing this to make money, but because I care about it.
“Anyone who sees my show will have their eyes opened, it’s not done in a precious way or to lecture people or to tell them how wonderful Shakespeare is – but rather to show them what Shakespeare can mean to them. It’s about you – and it’s very accessible.”
Sharma has already had interest from other Indian cities and he hopes also to stage it in the UK on returning and he has also had interest from American universities.