To celebrate the legacy of William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago on April 23, 1616, The British Council has organised a series of events under the umbrella Shakespeare Lives, across the country this year. In May, actor-writer Sir Ian McKellen was in Mumbai to launch Shakespeare on Film on Tour in India. The latest programme in this series is Mix The Play – Romeo and Juliet, launched in Delhi on November 7.
Mix The Play, an interactive web application, follows the footsteps of Mix The Play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, developed at London’s Old Vic Theatre. Visitors to the website can “mix” – or to use an approximate word, “direct” – a pre-recorded scene from the Bard’s two most famous plays: Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by selecting options for the mix’s style, location, actors and soundtrack from a limited drop-down list.
“It could be a matter of curiosity for people to see how many possibilities are there of doing a scene,” said theatre-director Roysten Abel, who directed the famous “a rose by any other name” scene, from Romeo and Juliet in 24 different ways for Mix The Play. The two soundtracks Abel uses are the work of London-based composer Simon Baker.
“People can try for themselves, to see what difference elements like location and music can make [to a production],” Abel added.
The options are myriad: a scene can be mixed or “directed” in 48 different ways, across four actors, three styles, two locations and the two background scores, courtesy Baker. The pre-recorded styles include a traditional or period play, the awkwardly named “cultural divide” includes a sari and a kurta-pyjama as costumes, and the treatment is somewhat melodramatic. In the modern version, there is a new storyline: Romeo is a corporate professional, and Juliet is an artist. The thing that keeps them apart, is a demanding career on either side.
The scenes star Kriti Pant or Kalki Koechlin for the part of Juliet Capulet, and Adil Hussain or Tushar Pandey as Romeo Montague. The locations are on-stage at the Little Theatre Group, Mandi House, New Delhi, and on-location, at a gorgeous bungalow on Tolstoy Marg, a stone’s throw from LTG.
Visitors to the site can also generate a poster, giving themselves directorial credit if they choose. Of course, there is an option to share their version of the scene on social media too. The hope, as with all social media campaigns, is that this will create a self-perpetuating loop, assisted periodically by posts from the cast and other celebrities.
Koechlin shared a remix of her own with her 757,000 followers on Twitter on November 12.
“Mix The Play is part of our digital engagement to connect with people online,” said Alan Gemmell, the new head of The British Council in India. “We wanted the work to be fun, interactive, something to share and talk about.”
Of course, Mix the Play is not the first digital outreach programme of The British Council. One of their other projects, included within Shakespeare Lives, is called #ShakespeareNoFilter, and adapts Shakespeare’s plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, into modern frames for Instagram.
Mix the Play also has antecedents in another digital outreach programme by The British Council, called Mix The City. Gemmell launched Mix The City, a musical app, last year in Israel, while he worked as director for The British Council there. The Indian version of Mix the City will be launched next year, possibly in January.
It is a bit tricky to assess how successful the Mix The Play has been in India. In terms of number of visitors, the page got some 15,000 people in the first week following its launch.
While this is not spectacular as website traffic figures go, it is a magnitude larger than what a stage show might have achieved in such limited time. According to Gemmell, most visitors spend 8-10 minutes on the site.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Abel’s intervention is the “modern” storyline. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were teenagers separated by a longstanding family feud, but the conflict for Abel’s lovers is born of their present-day lifestyles, jobs and the gadgets that keep them at work even when they leave office.
Touches of Bollywood
Even within this storyline, there is more than one interpretation possible. For example, in the sequence with actors Koechlin and Pandey, Juliet is all smiles and hugs till Romeo shows her something on the screen of his laptop – which he has focused on throughout their conversation as Juliet pleads with him to give up his Montague name to be with her. Then, she is miffed. They have a lovers’ spat and part ways quarrelling.
The same scene, played in the same style, but with actors Pant and Hussain turns out differently: Pant’s Juliet is accusing, untrusting, frustrated with Romeo working all the time. Hussain’s Romeo tries, and fails, to ignore messages on his phone even as he tries to show Juliet he really loves her. In this interpretation, it is Juliet who is angry and gets up and leaves before Romeo delivers his final line, teary-eyed.
The acting across the 24 versions varies from subtle to melodramatic, and is occasionally over-the-top. Sample Pandey’s Romeo, opposite Pant in the “cultural divide” milieu. It is unclear why his hands are tied, but what is even more perplexing is that he spends the better part of the three-minute scene resting his forehead against the wall, whimpering.
The sheer number of interpretations, of course, might have something to do with the acting swinging along this spectrum – each of the actors had to play the same scene 12 different ways for Mix The Play. Abel said there was an attempt to “Bollywood-ize” scenes in select sections. At other places, there is an attempt to re-contextualise Shakespeare, something that Abel has done before in Othello: A Play in Black and White and Goodbye Desdemona (interestingly, this last was based on Romeo and Juliet, and tells the story of two male actors who discover their love for each other during the play).
There is obviously no one way to direct a Shakespearean play. Abel has dabbled in experimental ideas around Shakespeare’s plays earlier, as have Koechlin (in The Company Theatre’s Hamlet) and Hussain (who acted in both, Othello: A Play in Black and White and Goodbye Desdemona). Mix The Play is interesting, and worth at least a try, even in avatars where the interpretation and acting seem like they belong in a 1980s Bollywood film.