When Tom Bird, festival director for Shakespeare’s Globe in London, approached theatre director Sunil Shanbag to stage a Gujarati version of All’s Well That Ends Well as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Shanbag had no idea that the project he was about to take on would grow to be so big.
The play, which opens at the prestigious Globe theatre on May 23 and 24 as Sau Saaru Jenu Chevat Saaru, is the first Gujarati production to be staged there, as part of an international cultural celebration organised ahead of the London Olympics.
Now, in an unexpected bonus, the production — playing as Maro Piyo Gayo Rangoon in Mumbai — has taken the Gujarati theatre circuit by storm too.
Last Sunday, the 18-song extravaganza that marries Shakespearean theatre with Gujarat’s musical tradition drew a full house at Tata Theatre, Nariman Point.
“I loved it. It was delightful. I think it works because it is as much Shakespeare as it is Gujarati. That’s what makes this production so remarkable and refreshing,” said theatre critic Shanta Gokhale.
Added Juhu-based interior designer Viraj Karnik, who was among the 1,000 audience members: “It was brilliant. I can’t believe Shakespeare can be adapted so well to the Indian context.”
The producers are now getting calls from Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Bangalore and, overseas, from Dubai, London, Antwerp and the US, for block bookings of the play.
“Ahmedabad mandals alone have booked 40 shows,” says executive producer Manhar Gadia.
Shanbag says the reaction has taken him by surprise. “This was my first foray into Gujarati mainstream theatre and I knew nothing about how it works,” he says. “By mounting the play on a commercial scale, I knew I was taking a big risk. But my cast, drawn from the Gujarati stage, was confident and supportive’’.
What seems to have worked particularly well is the local flavour infused in the 17th century caper of Shakespeare’s odd couple, Helena and Bertram, in France and Italy.
Set in the landowning Bhatia community, Maro Piyo… uses music, dance and backdrop elements from Bhangwadi, a traditional 1860s style of popular Gujarati musical theatre, to transport the couple to the 1900s, when manipulative Heli follows her aloof, reluctant husband Bharatram from Sau-rashtra to Bombay to Rangoon.
Credit for this re-imagining goes also to scriptwriter Mihir Bhuta, who says his phone hasn’t stopped ringing all week. “Producers are now lining up at my door, asking me to pen musicals for them,” he says.
The theatre community too has responded with warmth.
“Gujarati has been chosen to represent India. This is a big, big achievement for us as a community and we are celebrating it,” says actor Paresh Rawal.
Added Hindi and Gujarati stage actor Utkarsh Mazumdar: “Maro Piyo… has come as a breath of fresh air at a time when most of the Gujarati commercial fare is trapped in a box-office formula of over-the-top comedy, elaborate sets and jazzy costumes. Maro Piyo has managed to break that mould. It’s a simple story told in a delightful musical format.”
Shanbag says he did not set out to break any rules. “All I wanted was to be true to myself. From the outset, I knew I did not want to make a play for the so-called ‘global theatre market’ minus any cultural roots or local politics,” he adds. “My play had to reflect the dreams, passions, anxieties of a clearly defined Gujarati community. And if, after that, the play still reaches out and touches an audience beyond this, then that would be the strength of Shakespeare and his play. I believe that if you are true to the specifics, the universality will follow.”
Shanbag now faces the challenge of preparing his cast to perform a stripped-down version for an Elizabethan playhouse — a multi-level, open-air, 1,700 seater with no stage lighting or sound amplification.
“We have had to prepare two versions,” he says, “because in terms of sets, sound etc, the demands of the Globe are the complete opposite of the demands of traditional Gujarati theatre.”