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Bard’s missionary on magic carpet

Two dozen bananas and litres of water to prepare for a pound of flesh.

Shylock came to Calcutta on Saturday, courtesy Gareth Armstrong. The UK-based actor had two performances of his one-man play Shylock on Saturday at G.D. Birla Sabhagar.

Armstrong is careful not to strain his voice. Though he insists he will not finish all the bananas on his greenroom table, he needs all the energy he can get.

Having been “taken over to a degree” by one of Shakespeare’s most popular “villains” while performing his character in The Merchant of Venice, Armstrong decided to script the play with Shylock at the centre of it.

“Shakespeare didn’t know there would be a Holocaust. The reading of the character changes with history,” said Armstrong. While elements of history are incorporated in the play, he “deliberately avoids” bringing in too much of it, to preserve the universality of its theme.

The embittered Jew, seeking revenge on his Christian oppressors, carries a message that transcends location and religion, feels the man who has toured the world with his play, in collaboration with the British Council. A notable stop on the India itinerary is Ahmedabad, on September 20. “The same thing (that happened to Jews) is happening in India, Belfast, West Asia… People will react if you treat them unfairly,” feels the theatre and radio veteran.

Even Armstrong, who “charts the character’s growth through the production”, admits to not fully understanding Shylock. “You have to find love for such characters,” he says.

The star of the show, who is writing a book entitled Shylock’s Magic Carpet on his tours with the play, is happy to see that “people still believe theatre can make a difference”. For the “Shakespeare missionary”, that the Bard is still relevant 400 years on is a heartening thought.

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