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Handcuffed to history

Midnight's Children, widely regarded as a contemporary literary masterpiece, is to be adapted for the stage in a collaborative effort between the Royal Shakespeare Company, London, and two American universities. SHIRAZ SIDHVA takes a look at what's happening.

Allegory on stage.

AN unprecedented collaboration between London's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and the United States' Columbia University and the University of Michigan will bring Salman Rushdie's allegorical award-winning tale about modern India to the world stage early next year.

Midnight's Children, the fantastical saga of Saleem Sinai, a child born at the stroke of midnight of August 15, 1947, will be dramatised for the first time, using a cast of British Asian actors. It will be presented in January and February 2003 at the Barbican in London, in March at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, and at the Power Centre for Performing Arts, Ann Arbor, Michigan, before returning to tour the United Kingdom. There are no plans to bring the production to India, where the story unfolds — not yet, anyway.

Rushdie, who has recently made New York his home, and is less guarded about public appearances in the city, says he is delighted that Midnight's Children is being adapted to the stage. His association with the British stage goes back to his student days, when he acted. The author who went into hiding for years after a fatwa was issued on his life following the publication of his controversial Satanic Verses, was forced to cancel a five-part serialisation of Midnight's Children for the BBC because of political upheaval in Sri Lanka. The crew had earlier been refused permission by the Government to film in India.

Rushdie says he is delighted to be working again with the director of the production, Tim Supple, who directed a play based on his Haroun and the Sea of Stories at London's National Theatre. "It's also an honour to have the participation of two great American universities, and a real thrill to be able to bring the show to the Apollo, which is not just a theatre but an icon of New York life."

Building upon scripts that Rushdie wrote for the film project, the book works "very well" as a stage piece, according to him, and has been easier to adapt to the stage in some ways than to capture on film. He admits that the theatre production has precipitated a renewed interest in making the complex story into a film.

The production is the brainchild of Lee Bollinger, Columbia's dynamic new president, who hopes it will mark the beginning of the university's expanded role in the arts. Published in 1981, Midnight's Children is an extraordinary literary jewel (it was awarded the Booker of Bookers in 1993, and a host of other prizes), focussing on the fates of two children that are inextricably linked by the hour of their birth, literally "handcuffed to history". Set against the backdrop of the turbulent historical events on the Indian subcontinent during India's first 30 years of independence, the two children have an equally tumultuous coming of age.

Saleem Sinai's magical telepathic powers allow him to communicate with the 1,000 other children born at that same fateful hour, when a free India was created, and Pakistan simultaneously born. The book, widely regarded as a contemporary literary masterpiece, heralded a brave new wave of creativity, which was no longer content to be confined to a backlash of books spawned by writers from the Commonwealth. Instead, it affirmed a new literature penned by authors who were accepted as "critical insiders" rather than self-conscious outsiders, a literature that emerged as more self-confident and no longer content to be confined to the edges of modern-day multi-cultural Britain, where most writers, including Rushdie, lived.

Confirming Bombay-born Rushdie's reputation as a major international writer, The New York Review of Books said Midnight's Children was "one of the most important books to come out of the English speaking world in this generation". The mainly South Asian cast of 20 actors will perform the 60 or 70 roles in the RSC's new production. One advantage of doing a play rather than a movie, Rushdie explains, is that it was more fun to do it onstage, because theatre audiences were more willing to accept actors who played both children and adults. "You can just say to the actors, at this point you are 10-years-old. At another point, you are grown up."

The leading role of Saleem is played by Zubin Varla, a London-based Parsi, whose previous roles for the RSC include Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" (1999), the title role in "Roberto Zucco" (1999) and most recently, Caliban in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (2000). He also played the leading role of Judas in a recent revival of the Lloyd Webber musical, "Jesus Christ Superstar" in London's West End. Nina Wadia, best known for her television appearances on the hit comedy shows "Goodness Gracious Me "and "Perfect World", and who has also starred in the film, "Bend it like Beckham", plays the role of Padma. Other members of the creative team include Melly Still (designer and movement), Tina McHugh (lighting) and John Leonard (sound and video).

Announcing details of the new production in New York last month, and more recently, in London, director Time Supple said "Past attempts to film and stage Midnight's Children have sadly failed. Now the novel's fantastic language and remarkable story can be enjoyed as a theatrical spectacle. Rushdie's creation will be brought to life in a production that we hope will be as inventive, contemporary, sweeping and engrossing as the novel itself." This will be the first production the RSC will stage at the Barbican Theatre since May this year, when the venerable theatre company had a dramatic parting of ways with the Barbican after 20 years as its resident theatre company. Since then, the Company has presented its London productions at different theatres, including the Roundhouse and the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London.

A spokesperson of the RSC added that the education departments of the RSC and Barbican would also collaborate to create a full outreach and community programme based on the production, including a series of talks and events exploring the social and political themes characterising Rushdie's work. "I hope it preserves the heart and the spirit of the book," said Rushdie of the production, which will condense the book's quarter-million-odd words into three magical hours onstage.

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