The success of the complete “Macbeth” in Bengali makes an interesting case study

A howling wind greets you when you walk into the theatre. Soon, you’re faced with thunder. It’s dark, gloomy and gory — it is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. And it’s a full 150 minutes — the length of a Bollywood film. In times of “selected readings” and the marginalisation of the script, Kolkata’s Swapna Sandhani has staged the complete Macbeth in Bengali. Its 30th show played at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav this past Friday.

Director Koushik Sen explains that a revival in Bengali theatre, coupled with the overwhelming domestic focus on tele-serials, has pushed audiences to Shakespeare. He quotes thespian Utpal Dutt who once said that he couldn’t recall the last time he was angry.

“We get irritated, not angry. Shakespeare’s characters have strong emotions. They love, envy, conspire and kill... People are tired of the petty individual problems that form the plots of TV serials. They want something larger than life. Shakespeare gives them that and they are willing to pay to watch a long play.”

It isn’t just Koushik. A clutch of renowned Bengali dramatists have succeeded with Shakespeare in the recent past. Suman Mukhopadhyay had staged King Lear in 2010, which starred renowned actor Soumitra Chatterjee as Lear. Later that year, Bibhas Chakraborty staged Hamlet. Both have staged several shows in the last couple of years. Chandan Sen and Biplab Banerjee also drew the crowds last year with Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet respectively, all in Bengali.

“After 2011 (the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore), there was a lot of Tagore happening. So much so that at a point it became disturbing. Not all works were tributes to Tagore. Many were simply for grants the Government was giving for Tagore,” Koushik says, explaining that Shakespeare was their dissent to this mentality.

Koushik was one of those intellectuals who clamoured for “Poriborton”, an end to the 34-year Left Front regime. He and some others, however, chose not to support any other party. After the Trinamool Congress came to power, satirists and dissenters became targets. “It was the ideal time for Macbeth. There’s a hint in the text that the end of Macbeth is not the end of tyranny... We’ve changed the ending by incorporating the lessons we have learnt from contemporary politics. Malcolm, the new king, is equally vicious and anti-people,” says Koushik.

In a sarcastic dig at the establishment, the script by Ujjwal Chattopadhyaya includes a line from a speech by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Malcolm, on being crowned, says, “We have to complete the work pending for the last 10 years, in 10 days.” This irked a section of the Bengali press who initially accused the CPI (M) of sponsoring the play. Ironically, his production of Tagore’s Dak Ghar was disrupted, allegedly at the behest of the CPI (M), in 2008.

This time though, the opposition has seen him laughing all the way to the bank. The Rs. four-lakh production, with the stage designed by ace scenographers Saumik and Piyali, has made profits solely from ticket sales. The witches of Macbeth ring true: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

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