England's Royal Shakespeare Company has brought Salman Rushdie's dramatisation of his historical novel Midnight's Children to the New York stage in a new collaboration with Columbia University that deserved to have started out on a better footing, reports UPI.
Rushdie's play is a maddening mélange of serious events, slapstick comedy and salacious detail of the crudest kind that at three-and-a-half hours is much too long to hold the attention of the average theatregoer.
Its use of Anglo-Indian accented English makes some of the dialogue incomprehensible, and the identification and relationships of the 70 characters are often unclear.
Rushdie's kaleidoscopic, 500-page epic about the birth of the Indian nation, published in 1981, is a work of rich dimension that won many literary awards.
But his theatrical version written with the aid of dramaturge Simon Reade and Tim Supple, who directs the production, is a mess that needs severe editing and rewriting.
It was wise to limit its New York run at Harlem's Apollo Theatre to 12 performances ending Sunday.
The use of the Apollo, the African-American community's most famous theatre, is a part of Columbia's recent effort to be more of a good neighbour to Harlem. But there seems to be little reciprocation judging from the paucity of blacks in the audience.
President Lee Bollinger of Columbia personally chose the Apollo as "a natural place for our new venture with the RSC."
"There's a vitality to Harlem that is alive and present," he said in an interview. "Your senses overflow there with so many impressions, and that's an obvious parallel with the India in Rushdie's play."
The production has already had a brief run at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbour, which joined Columbia in sponsoring commissioning of the work by the RSC at a cost of $2 million.
The play focuses on an Indian Muslim, Saleem Sinai, and his family and traces their activities through the stormy years that saw the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan, the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, and the split from Pakistan of Bangladesh in 1971.
Saleem is actually a changeling child, born along with the 1,000 other babies at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the moment of India's independence from Britain.
Cursed with a huge, runny nose but blessed with telepathic powers that keep him in touch with other midnight's children, the eternally bumbling Saleem recounts his family history back to the time of his grandparents to prove that what happened to India was directed at his "benighted" family and was meant to eliminate them along with the children who shared his birth hour.
"The theme is the collision of an individual and history," according to Rushdie who now lives in New York.
"It's the big subject that never goes away," he continued. "Are we the masters of our times or the victims? To what extent are we in control of our lives?"
Fortunately for this misbegotten, stylised, and less than magical dramatization, it has as Saleem a wonderful actor, Zubin Varla, who heads a cast of 20 actors of South Asian background who play two or three roles each.
Varga creates a larger than life character and displays a sure talent for comedy that is reminiscent of the performances of Italian film star Roberto Benigni.
Also in the show's favour is imaginative staging by Melly Still that allows for a quick succession of short scenes and calls for elaborate lighting and startling sound effects.
The overall effect is pleasingly surrealistic but still looks cheap except for costumes designer Jodie Reade has fashioned from rich Indian fabrics shot with gold and silver.