| Shani Perez, who played Nandini in Raktakarabi
One of Rabindranath Tagore’s most complex plays, Red Oleander (Raktakarabi), made theatrical history when it was performed in English in London on Friday night by a new British theatre company determined to introduce the Nobel Prize-winning playwright to a wider audience.
Red Oleander has been performed before in the UK ' in English on radio (written by Tanika Gupta) and in Bengali on the stage ' but this version by the recently established Myriad Productions is believed to be the first time it has been done in English on stage.
The company’s artistic director, Kevin Rowntree, said he wanted to take his play on tour in the UK and eventually to cities in India, “including especially Calcutta”, before dramatising other Tagore plays ' “two I have in mind are The Post Office and Sacrifice”.
Rowntree, 40, the son of an English father and an Indian mother from Guyana, was steeped in Tagore literature and Indian philosophy from an early age and has strong personal reasons for turning to Red Oleander as his company’s debut play.
He revealed: “My mother, Sarojini, who is coming to see the play, was named after the poet Sarojini Naidu; and her two brothers, who are no longer alive, were called Rabindranath, after the poet, and Karamchand, after Gandhi.”
The script of Red Oleander was “based on a recent translation by Ananda Lal, Tagore’s own translation and things we put in ourselves. We borrowed from the vigorous storytelling techniques of Commedia dell’Arte from Italy and English medieval popular drama as well as the physical traditions of Kathakali and eastern martial arts training,” said Rowntree, a former actor who often acts as “fight director” for television and feature films.
Among the appreciative audience at the Camden People’s Theatre were stalwarts of the Tagore Society in London, who may now see the wisdom of performing his works in English rather than almost exclusively in Bengali if a wider British and British-born Bengali audience is to be reached.
Those who entered the dressing room after the play to congratulate the multicultural cast included the scholar of Bengali, Dr William Radice, who said he thought the production highlighted aspects of Red Oleander in new ways. He hoped that the play would be taken on tour after its current run of 12 shows.
The director, whose brother St John Francis does promotional work for Myriad, said: “The plays of Rabindranath Tagore have been much neglected in this country. Eighty years after its writing, Red Oleander has special relevance in a world threatened by the forces of national self-interest and state control.”
His understanding is that “the play shows the systematic mechanisation of human resources to serve a corrupt tyranny. At its heart is the character of Nandini, a beautiful young girl who inspires a revolution against the cruel regime. Her symbol is the simple red flower, the oleander, from which she draws great resolve. She eventually brings a kingdom to its knees.”
Tagore, who was well travelled and developed a global outlook on life, would have been pleased with the casting.
An Israeli actress, Shani Perez, impressed on Friday night as Nandini. A Japanese, Sadao Ueda, is cast as Bishu; Sally Okafor, daughter of a Nigerian father and a Punjabi mother, multi-tasks as the king, Kishor, Gokul, Gosain and a headman. A Mauritian, David Furlong, plays Phagulal, Gajju and another headman.
The lone Bengali (but UK-bred) is Chandana Banerjee, who doubles as Chandra and the professor. A Syrian-Italian, Aiman Zahabi, who looks suitably menacing with his staff, is the sardar.
Rowntree said: “There is interest in the play being taken to Calcutta.”