Over the centuries, Shakespeare’s works have seen their fair share of adaptions, reinterpretations and everything in between. From early 60s dancing street gangsters to Amanda Bynes trying to pass herself off as her brother to play soccer to Romeo and Juliet fighting on dragons in a science fiction fantasy on a floating island, it’s safe to say that the methods with which these works have been told have always been fluid to one degree or another.
Somehow though, when I walked into the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, I was still caught off guard when I saw Shakespeare’s head, decked out like Lord Krishna, plastered on a drop behind the set of India Company Theatre Mumbai’s Piya Behrupiya (aka Twelfth Night). With one look at the colorful, beautifully rendered likeness and another at the platform littered with unfamiliar instruments, I knew that this was going to be an adaptation of Shakespeare unlike any I had seen.
To say I was impressed with the result is an understatement.
Now, I could spend a few thousand words praising this production. From the flawless performances, tangible cast chemistry, wonderful costumes and choreography, the intelligent and witty script, this was one of the most engaging theatrical productions I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. I was laughing until tears filled my eyes at Puranjeet Dasgupta’s surprisingly meta Sebastian complaining about his lines or the antics of Gagan Singh Rriar’s Uncle Toby or Geetanjali Kulkarni’s scene-stealing Viola . . . even though I couldn’t understand a single word they said.
That’s right dear reader, this production was almost entirely in Hindi, with subtitles projected above the stage for those of us not fluent in the language.
To some, this may come as a surprise: after all, one of Shakespeare’s most legendary strengths is his wittily crafted, lyrical dialogue, rooted firmly in English’s subtleties. How can such nuanced writing translate to a foreign language and still remain understandable to us monolingual Chicagoians attending? The answer is simple: it can’t. Don’t get me wrong: Company Theatre Mumbai took Shakespeare’s complex and nuanced approach and ran with it, featuring dialects of Hindi native to the actors’ home states, references to South Asian sports and throwing in presumably well written song lyrics as well–little to none of which we could have noticed or appreciated, despite the few Chicago-localized jokes.
Yet, despite that language barrier, the whole crowd, no matter where they were from or what language we understood, roared with laughter in the right places. We clapped and stomped our feet to the dance numbers. We openly engaged with the characters and situations, even when the subtitles were delayed or when they were absent during the song sequences. How could this be?
Because, and here’s a secret between you and me, my new friend: for many, the mass appeal of Shakespeare is not his language.
Now, in many institutions, merely muttering those words under my breath would be enough to get my English major revoked, but hear me out. If one takes a long, hard look at his work, Shakespeare’s plays are littered with references, jokes, and phrases that more recent audiences would not understand without a history lesson, reading the footnotes in the academic Norton anthology edition of the scripts, or following along with SparkNotes’ No Fear Shakespeare line. The language is dense, and often requires translation as if you were watching a play in a foreign language–and given the centuries of language evolution that have occurred since then, it almost may as well be at times.
No my friend, for many, the appeal of Shakespeare can be seen in the sense of cultural legacy, the universally applicable plots and themes, complex character arcs, and the sheer joy and love of storytelling that comes through with every scene. Often in these performances, perhaps because of the language barrier, the cast puts their whole physical and spiritual being into their performance, emoting loudly and fluidly with far more than their words: their tone, their movements, their stage presence and chemistry, enrapture the audience far more than any mere words could–and it is this universal truth that enables Piya Behrupiya and even the Eye on India’s event itself to succeed, and also why they are vitally important to our culture, as well as their own.
Now, I could get on a soapbox and preach how art is a universal language, transcends borders, and speaks to the human spirit in all of us, but I won’t. Partially because that’s a tabla that’s been played many times before and remains continually true, and partially because Rachel D’souza already beat me to the punch with her eloquent “Music–The Universal Language” blog on this very site.
Instead, let us simply think about what has occurred: a play, written and performed 400 years ago, traveled around the world from an island in the Northeastern Atlantic to the subcontinent of India, found an audience hundreds of years later who were passionate enough to adapt the work and put their own mark, and then debut this wonderfully unique version back at the Globe Theatre where this play originated from.
That is the crazy, wonderful world we live in: where stories from two widely different cultures can blend together and produce a work that’s faithful to both, and joyfully celebrates both. This festival is much the same. Through artwork, poetry, fashion, theatre, dance, and even math, Eye on India is proudly celebrating its Indian heritage, its identity and otherness, while at the same time opening dialogue, and from there, empathy and mutual understanding. This organization has successfully created a space where it is okay to ask questions, to meet incredible people, and, most importantly, to remember to celebrate what makes us different just as much as what makes us the same–a lesson that can be easy to lose sight of, but couldn’t be more important the smaller this world gets.
Piya Behrupiya performed September 27th and 29th at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
– Colin Herzog
Colin Herzog is a second year graduate student in Columbia College Chicago’s Arts Management program, and a volunteer for the Eye on India 2016 festival. He has written, consulted, and edited for numerous publications and institutions, but his passion lies in encouraging and refining self expression through the arts and learning about other cultures. When he is not volunteering, Colin can be found working and teaching as a T.A. for Columbia College Chicago’s First Year Experience program and navigating the life of a full time student.