Ahead of the Bard’s 400th death anniversary, veteran director Alyque Padamsee pays tribute to Shakespeare’s unwavering appeal
When I was in school, we were forced to read Shakespeare and learn him by heart. How we hated this onerous task. But then one amazing day my sister dragged me to see Hamlet, a film by Sir Laurence Olivier. Time stood still. I fell in love. Why? because I heard Shakespeare spoken by one of the greatest actors of all times (Olivier himself played Hamlet), giving not only meaning but emotion to each and every line.
Shakespeare’s words were never meant to be read on a printed page. He is not a novelist. He is a dramatist. To understand what he is saying, you need to read him aloud. He exists in the space between the actor’s lips and the audience’s ear. Close your eyes listen to the beauty and the resonance of his magical words: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day...”
Now listen to his wisdom: “Cowards die many times before their death....”
I have directed six of Shakespeare’s plays. Each one transported me to a world that was inspiring. My first attempt at directing Shakespeare was The Taming of the Shrew in 1954. It was a flop because my ear was not tuned to the magic of his words.
I next directed Hamlet (1964) and realised that the essence of Shakespeare was in the emotion of the speeches and not just in the meaning of the line.
Shakespeare’s plots are mostly borrowed; so are many of his characters. Many film directors have fallen in love with these plots and characters. But they miss out on the music of the English language. So what the audience gets is the story but not the music and the iambic pentameter (five sets of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables).
I have seen many film versions in Russian, Japanese, and even in Hindi. Many of these movie portrayals have been very powerful… but the beauty of his language is lost in translation.
There is no doubt that his plays lend themselves to modern interpretations. A few years ago, I set Romeo and Juliet at the time of the Bombay Riots, with a Muslim Romeo and a Hindu Juliet. Shortly after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, I had an actress play the part of Caesar with a white streak in her hair to show how the greed for power is gender neutral.
The plays of Shakespeare are 450 years old, but they are more contemporary than 99 per cent of the drama being written today.
When Shylock says to Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, “ You call me misbeliever, cut throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine”, he could be an Indian in Australia who is facing bigotry.
There is no doubt in my mind that Shakespeare is alive and kicking 365 days a year in hundreds of theatres all over the world.
Padamsee is a veteran theatre personality and ad film maker. He tweets as @alyquepadamsee.
>City-based play reading company Nouveau Art will perform dramatic readings of some of the Bard’s greatest plays and decipher the nuances of his writing.
When: April 30, 6.30pm
At: The Hive, Huma Mansion, Chuim Village Road, Khar (W)
Call: 96199 62969
Tickets: Rs 600
>British Council’s Shakespeare Lives event features an exhibition of books, a quiz and a film screening of Hamlet. Don’t miss the workshop on Shakespeare’s contribution to modern phrases.
When: April 20 to 23, 10am to 6pm
At: British Council, One Indiabulls Centre, Elphinstone Road (W)