The Company Theatre’s "Piya Behrupiya" recreates the magic of Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night"

A brightly painted, larger than life portrait of Shakespeare hangs on the stage as a backdrop, and the playwright looks on, quite at home in his Indian avatar, his golden crown sitting easy on his head. If you were in a mood to be fanciful, you could even say that he looks like he approves of what’s going on before him. The Company Theatre’s translation and adaptation of Twelfth Night is the kind of tribute to Shakespeare that stands apart from the many others, at once immensely faithful and wonderfully original, like the portrait on the stage. Piya Behrupiya, directed by Atul Kumar, is that rare amalgamation of the literary and humorous in Shakespeare, and as Indian as they come. The Company recently brought the play once again to a Delhi audience that, judging from the packed auditorium and standing ovation, just can’t get enough.

There’s the lovesick Orsino, fresh out of the pages, his speeches tinged with just the right amount of that upper class New Delhi twang. He switches easily between Hindi and English, making herculean efforts to woo an indifferent Olivia, who flicks her long plait as she embraces her sweetly loud, Punjabi identity that both endears and amuses. And if you are familiar with the play, you’ll know that Orsino’s helped along the way by a cross dressed Viola, grieving for a brother who she mistakenly thinks is lost to the sea. Viola’s easy, romantic songs, in the style of earnest Bollywood style wooing, work on both a needy Olivia and a very confused Orsino. Things only get more muddled with the arrival of a very alive Viola’s twin Sebastian, equally charming but genuinely male. As it often happened in Shakespeare’s plays, the knots are unravelled, and things straighten themselves out at a gratifying pace.

An appreciation for the Bard’s timelessness and two hours of belly laughs; that’s the essence of what Piya Behrupiya offers the audience. The structure, dialogues and music come together in a complimentary relationship, each assisting the other, and the play, a combination of catchy songs that you might find yourself humming long after the curtain’s lowered, and interactive dialogues that, is Shakespeare brought to thriving, flourishing life. Individually, the dialogues and the music would be good, but perhaps not great. It’s interesting to see, then, that they come together to make a play that is worth a watch, and then some more.

Assisted by a cast that delivers a sustained performance, with each actor performing brilliantly, the play’s pace and intensity doesn’t sag. A trio of live musicians sit on the stage, sharing space with actors who get up when the scene demands. Amitosh Nagpal, already a well known name in the world of theatre and cinema, acts as both Sebastian and a link to the audience, complaining to us about his non-existent role and even looping in the director for chopping what little there was in the original play. He’s funny, witty and immensely endearing, to an extent that we find ourselves a little disappointed with each exit. Gitanjali Kulkarni as the smart talking, confident Viola/Cesario and Mansi Multani as the charmingly Punjabi Olivia are delightful, and Sagar Deshmukh’s Orsino hold his own, his chemistry with Olivia, Viola and Cesario almost equally strong. Gagan Riar as the drunk uncle Toby is another success, with some of the funniest, best executed dialogues in the play. And then, Saurabh Nayyar’s smug, self-important Malvolio, when he appears in his yellow translucent tights and socks, is a sight that promises to stay with you for a while, whether you want it to or not.

Time and his own genius has made Shakespeare highbrow literature now, but once upon a time, he was a playwright who wanted to amuse and entertain. Here is a play that offers a tribute to that Shakespeare, retaining the magic of his words, but also their allegiance to the audience.