London, Jan. 30: British critics appear to have got it wrong again. The lobby that predicted Bombay Dreams would fold in a matter of weeks — the musical is still playing to packed houses — appears unimpressed with what most Indian members of the audience considered a brilliant and very enjoyable stage adaptation by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Possibly, they have got it in for Rushdie, never a favourite with the British media — the author was in the audience. More than 100 critics came to the world premiere of Midnight’s Children at the Barbican Theatre in London last night, but puzzled readers today will wonder whether those with the power to kill off shows were even there at the same show.
This was Paul Taylor’s view of the play in The Independent: “What it needs is a bit of recklessness.”
And this was the highly respected Michael Billington in The Guardian: “There is a wild recklessness about the project.”
Perhaps the truth is that British Asian theatre is changing the landscape of the whole arts scene in the UK and otherwise enormously gifted and well-informed critics are not entirely equipped to deal with the new order.
The RSC higher echelons were fearing a massed attack by the press and those apprehensions appear to have been justified. In bringing Rushdie’s long, complicated novel to the stage, the RSC took a huge risk, but it has experimented boldly by using a mixture of new and old films as a backdrop to the action on the stage.
The play moves from 1915 to 1975 and takes in everything from the Amritsar massacre, Partition and Independence, the language riots in Mumbai and the creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat, the 1965 war with Pakistan, the birth of Bangladesh and the Emergency.
“Pakistan — what a complete dump,” exclaims one of the characters, to sniggers from the Indians in the audience. Another projects Pakistan, though, as “the land of the pure”.
As for the actors, mostly young British Asians, they have given the production an energy missing from the tired performances of the luvvie set normally found in the West End.
There seems an inability among most critics to sense the winds of change. Bombay Dreams was flawed but most Indians knew instinctively that A.R. Rahman’s music and the choreography of Bollywood had created something fresh and exciting for the otherwise lacklustre West End musical scene.
The same is true of Midnight’s Children, which, with its rapid cuts from one scene to the next, is almost imitating a fast moving film.
The Indians in the audience got the little jokes (the number of midnight’s children out of the original 1,001 who perish is precisely 420), as well as the inflections and nuances of language.
In The Times (“Sprawling saga given the big squeeze”), Benedict Nightingale says: “I suspect anyone who hasn’t read the book will need the family tree in the programme, for it’s easy to get muddled by the grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles rushing in and out.”
Surely, he cannot be thinking of Indians, who had no difficulty in coming to grips with the extended family of Saleem Sinai.
The Guardian concedes that “the adaptation is skillfully reinforced by newsreel film”.
Its critic comments: “It would need something on the scale of the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby to do full justice to Rushdie’s original. Yet, for all my caveats, this version does manage to capture something of the novel’s narrative abundance.”
He says: “It is an evening of memorable moments in which huge narrative gallons are squeezed into a pint pot.”
In The Independent, Paul Taylor argues: “For all its energy and attack, the production is deficient in true dramatic dynamism. The event is only a very partial success.”
In The Daily Telegraph (“Exotic Feast is unsatisfying”), Charles Spencer says that “you never quite forget that you are watching a book rather than a play” and that “the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts”.
Although there were “strong contributions” from Zubin Varla in the lead role and many others, he left the epic “feeling exhausted rather than elated”.
The opposite was true of the Indians.