| Salman Rushdie
Ever since Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 and won the Booker Prize, Salman Rushdie has been trying to have the novel dramatised. In 1997, it almost happened.
The BBC planned to turn it into a £5 million, five-hour television drama, to be shot on location in India. But at the last minute, possibly fearing a Muslim backlash after the furore surrounding The Satanic Verses, the Indian government withheld permission for the film to be made.
Three hundred actors had been tested and a fine cast assembled in Mumbai, the author’s native city. Distraught, Rushdie published his screenplay of his epic tale of the birth of modern India with the lament: “This is the story of a production which never was.”
But now at last Rushdie’s masterwork is about to come to life. The Royal Shakespeare Company has transformed the screenplay into a three-hour stage play, which opens in January at the Barbican.
The adaptation has been written by Rushdie in collaboration with Simon Reade, the RSC’s former literary manager and dramaturg, and Tim Supple, who also directs.
Talking at a hotel in New York, where he was helping to launch the production, Rushdie seemed delighted that Midnight’s Children was finally coming to life.
“It’s particularly exciting for a writer to have his name linked with the word Shakespeare — it’s the first time anybody has put me in the same sentence,” he joked.
The play was being launched in the US as a result of its funding. Two American universities, Michigan and Columbia, which are developing close links with the RSC, have invested $2 million in the project.
After its run at the Barbican, the play will transfer to Ann Arbor, in Michigan, followed by a run in New York at the 1,500-seat Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where black artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Michael Jackson launched their careers.
“Frankly, if this show were going on in mid-town Manhattan, it would be just a show,” said Rushdie, who has been based in New York for some time. “The fact it’s going on at the Apollo, I hope it becomes the coolest thing in New York.”
After its stint in America, the play will return for an extensive tour of Britain, taking in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, Aberdeen, Bath, Norwich and Nottingham.
Rehearsals begin next month, though so far there is only one firm casting — Parsee actor Zubin Varla, who plays the lead, Saleem Sinai, one of 1,001 children born at the stroke of midnight as India becomes Independent on August 15, 1947.
Varla, whose previous roles include Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar and Romeo in an RSC Romeo and Juliet, will lead an ensemble of 20 actors, the aim being to cast them from the British Asian acting fraternity. The ensemble will have to manage a total of 60 characters, in itself a scaling down from more than 100 in the novel.
In essence, the play has three stories in one: the story of Sinai, who is both the central character and the narrator; the story of his family, beginning with his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, and his parents, Ahmed Sinai and Amina; and beyond these, the much wider story of the 1919 Amritsar massacre, the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi, the partition of India, military rule in Pakistan, the secession of Bangladesh and the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Rushdie is happy with the choice of Varla. “It seems impossible to conceive of Midnight’s Children without Saleem’s narrating voice, because his voice is the spirit of the novel and is one reason we needed a leading actor with great theatre technical skill. He is required to have a very complicated dual role of telling the story and being the story. He has to constantly step in and out of the story; not only that, he has to step in and out of the story at many different ages, and then step back into a narrative position.”
The novel itself, which is probably the most significant about India in the past 50 years, does not need selling. It has been translated into 40 languages and won the Booker of Bookers in 1993. But will it work as a play'
“It’s a gigantic novel, a quarter of a million words,” Rushdie conceded. “It’s a difficult thing to put into a play, but actually, in many ways, the fluidity of theatre helps. In the end, the show has to work on its own terms as a work of art.”
Rushdie’s introduction to the RSC came in the early 1960s when he arrived from Mumbai to be a boarder at Rugby and was taken once a term to see a Shakespeare play at Stratford-upon-Avon. It was the period of Peter Hall and Peter Brook. “I didn’t realise I was actually watching the nature of theatre being changed,” he recalled.
Four decades on, he feels the RSC might be entering another equally exciting period.
He explained: “People have learned, partly because of those years of Hall and Brook, partly because of the familiarity with cinema, a much more fluid way of making a play. You don’t have to have just a set; you can have acting areas; you can move between them. You can be very, very inventive now on stage, and that makes a number of things easier for Midnight’s Children, which is a book which has quite a large cast and goes over 60 years, and discusses the inter-penetration of private lives and history.”
Reade and Supple removed sections from the play and inserted lyrical passages from the novel. As an innovation, they will also use film on a sparse stage to help tell the story.
Rushdie wants the play to capture something of the boisterousness of India. “It will obviously be very noisy, this show. One of the things that made me write the book in the way I did is that India is a kind of assault on the senses. I wanted the show to be that, too.”
He also hopes Midnight’s Children will be taken to India, where there have been riots in Gujarat, and to the Islamic world and perhaps help him to distance himself from the fatwa. “One of the things I’ve thought about Midnight’s Children is that it is a novel which puts a Muslim family at the centre of the Indian experience. At a moment when the experience of the minorities in India is marginalised by the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism, it seems relevant. It’s not a particularly religious Muslim family, but it’s a Muslim family and it puts the story of the Muslim family as the centre of the Indian story. That is something that has value right now.”