Theatre virtuoso Atul Kumar opens his new show, Piya Behroopiya, at London's Globe Theatre this month. Here, in an exclusive interview with Stage Impressions, he talks of his other forays into the world of Shakespeare, which includes the sellout show Nothing Like Lear, directed by frequent collaborator, Rajat Kapoor.
You had once tweeted about making your director smile for the first time during rehearsals.
Yes. This was in the initial stages of rehearsing Nothing Like Lear. That play was something new that we had taken up. It was the first time I was performing a solo without other actors to play off. It felt very lonely during the rehearsals and the shows. Usually there is a lot of bonhomie in an ensemble. If you fail at some point, there is always someone to pick up the strand. Vinay and me did have some rehearsals together, but often it was just me and my director. In the beginning, the piece didn’t seem to be coming together at all. I was on the floor struggling, and nothing was pleasing Rajat. I could see it on his face—it was so long and straight. One day he smiled. It was so wonderful.
Shakespeares’s King Lear is a tragedy, and even if you play it for laughs, you still need to focus in to draw the pathos out. That come through for me, but how do you engineer that moment in a devised piece that’s so up and down? Is it just the audience working with the material themselves?
King Lear is a tear-jerker. It’s too close to my heart. When it comes to the emotional pay-off, there can be a moment where it just happens during rehearsals. It comes to the actor, it goes past him. There is a realization that it arrived when you were in a certain state, and the director underlines it, he chooses to keep it. Then we try to recreate it again and again. Very often, when we do that, things that worked fantastically the very first time, fall flat the next time around. Then, we need to decide how to weave that emotion into the overall structure of the performance. Where will it appear? This is something that is very consciously decided in later rehearsals when we are through with the improvising. We improvise a lot to get these clues.
Coming to the performances, watching both Vinay and you back-to-back, I got the sense of a kind of 'good cop bad cop' dynamic. Was that intentional?
Well, Rajat knew how we were as people, and as performers. We are very different in the way our clowns interact with the audience, and in our humour. Rajat allowed that to come into the two versions naturally. There are things that Vinay does, that I don’t, and vice versa, and we have borrowed from each other as well. We sat through each other’s rehearsals.
Do you feel ahead of your audience sometimes? Your clown came across as belligerent at times.
Never. The audience is the life-force of each performance, and they transform each scene. Especially these devised pieces, they are affected by each set of people we perform for. I would never think like that. Well, the character takes a dig at the audience all the time, yes.
Soso, the mean clown. PHOTOGRAPH COPYRIGHT VIVEK VENKATRAMAN
Vinay’s clown, by contrast, seems to be very deferential.
You might want to check with people who’re close to me if I really am that full of myself. My personality could be spilling over to the clown. But there’s this other thing about this clown which is probably what you’re talking about. This clown, Soso, was there in Hamlet (Read our essay The Paradox of Mass Hypnosis) and in C for Clown, where he was naughty and mean and selfish. He was a tiny little haraami, as we called him. That character has stayed since then. Vinay played Popo in C for Clown, and he’s this old gentle clown, and that’s the persona he persists with in Nothing Like Lear. We should have clarified that we are playing the same clowns that we had first created in an earlier production.
So although it is new territory, you have worked in a similar idiom or a grammar of performance, so to speak.
Only as much as that it’s an improvisation, and the theatre is devised, and that it’s Shakespeare, and it’s in gibberish, and there are clowns involved.
So do you think you’ve repeated yourself?
I’m just the actor. It’s not my play. My input towards the process has always been to tell Rajat—let’s do something else, let’s change. He is quite convinced that he wants to continue exploring this gibberish-speaking clown, in different avatars, in different ways. I asked him, wouldn’t it get boring, the same clown again and again? He gave an example that totally shook me up. He asked me how many films of Chaplin have I seen? It’s the same tramp in every film, but the world he inhabits changes each time. So let’s try and achieve that. I think he will continue doing other clown productions.
The enduring persona of Chaplin's tramp. DIGITAL ART BY LESCONS (DEVIANT ART)
Do you feel that The Company Theatre can just pull you out of the hat, get you to rehearse a piece, and immediately there are nine sell-out shows?
I’m very fortunate, more than anything. The other day, there were a lot of us together, and not all from the same theatre group, or the same play. One of these evenings in Bombay and I said, ‘Wow! All of you are doing so much theatre! You are working in two or three plays and when I ask you for dates for the possibilities of working together, we can’t because you guys are busy. Not doing films or ads, or a ten to five job, you’re doing theatre. Not even commercial theatre. All of you are working in the experimental space.’
People didn’t have dates for the whole year. I found that remarkable. There are so many new theatre groups, so many people going off to theatre schools, or workshops, spending money to do it, finding the money to do it, and then also coming back to do plays. Just till a few years back, we were doing very few shows, and struggling for an audience. It started with C for Clown, and it went on to The Blue Mug—these plays helped us get huge audiences for Hamlet The Clown Prince. Nothing Like Lear was nothing. Hamlet had a two weeks housefull run at Prithvi. That had never happened before. So there is a lot of history involved. There is Rajat and his company, and my company and the work we have done.
Let’s put it this way, you are the property of The Company Theatre, and they can put you out in front and you can bring in the money. You are the prize pony. I mean, you will put in the hard work, and provide a great performance, but do you get a sense that you own this turf? Working with several actors can sometimes be a logistical nightmare for a production—all the dates and egos that need to be juggled. Here, you can just show up yourself.
It’s very strange that you say this, because I cannot say yes and I cannot say no. No, I don’t consider myself a prize pony. I don’t presume that I can suddenly set the cash-registers ringing just by announcing a play in which I’m performing. In fact, it’s the opposite. For example, Nothing Like Lear, we had Vinay who has a certain pull as a performer because of his work in mainstream cinema. That’s who I would like to put on stage, rather than me, if he had dates and if I needed to get the money in. Even now, when we perform Hamlet, people talk of Namit and Neil, and Kalki. There are film personalities now, and I like that situation. I’m completely comfortable with it because if I did announce a play with just me, I would still be struggling for audiences. But I would be lying if I said, I wasn’t aware of the commercial viability that our company has now achieved, for whatever reasons. There is a lot of money coming in not just from Prithvi runs, but from sold shows. For the Kamshet facility we had exhausted all our money just in buying the land. It’s through our own work we’ve raised a lot of money. I am part of that.
Box-office draw: Vinay Pathak
How is the new facility in Kamshet shaping up?
The first phase is ready. We moved in earlier this year. We had money to make just a residential space which was large enough to host about fifteen people in a dormitory style arrangment. That is how many may be involved in an average production. Later, as more funds come in, we’ll build cottages for artist residencies, and work spaces. There won’t a performing space—this is a small village very far away, and we can’t expect audiences to come down. However, I was at Ninasam (read our essay The Ninasam Experience) recently, which is in the middle of nowhere and they have audiences. Kamshet is between Bombay and Pune, so I’m sure there are possibilities to explore. We have a rehearsal space already. We could rig up lights, and it would work as an arena for performance.
Are you looking to engage with the local population and create a theatre culture in the vicinity?
Yes. We hope to open all our theatre productions for the villagers who live nearby. Apart from that, we have employed several people from the village. In time to come, we hope to even organise theatre workshops for them. Let’s see how it pans out. It’s too premature to talk about all this but it’s my wish that it happens.
Kumar's new production is a Hindi adaptation of Twelfth Night.
What has the experience of rehearsing Twelfth Night been like? This is your first production to be rehearsed at the Kamshet facility.
Fantastic! It is a dream come true. That’s what I’ve been trying to get to for the last fifteen years. In February, we had the havan and all the actors were there. We felt on the top of the world. The production has been a shift from my comfort zone. The play is in Hindi, and there is a lot of song and dance and no clowning. It’s the first musical that I have done, and it was wonderful negotiating how actors can suddenly start singing and dancing in between speaking lines. It was a new world. I don’t know much about the technicalities of music, but I do have an ear for it. I depended a lot on my singers and composers. It’s dangerous territory. I was aware of it when I took it on.
You’ve already toured in London with Hamlet. What will the difference be this time?
The big difference is that we did many shows then, 12-14 shows as opposed to the two shows at the Globe. We weren’t part of a festival, there was a producer who handled it like a business venture. With Hamlet we were very happy because it was the first time we were performing abroad. The audience wasn’t a diasporic Indian one, these were British audiences. When we took The Blue Mug abroad, it was a bit boring because only the Indians came. Half of them weren’t even interested in theatre, they just wanted to see their favorite stars. But this one was completely out there in the open, like any other theatre production from anywhere in the world. All kinds of different people came to see it.
You have been to China. How was the reception at Shanghai?
Terrible. We couldn’t communicate to them. They were completely quiet, no laughter, a lot of shifting in their seats. We just failed to communicate with them. Not a single laugh. It was the same thing in the Netherlands. They didn’t laugh at all. We thought it was a fiasco. But then they came backstage, in hordes, praising the play to the skies. We were wondering why the F didn’t they laugh? We had to come back for six curtain calls because of all the applause. We were confused. Some friends told us later that’s how they are culturally. Then in Lucknow once, it fell a bit flat.
Publicity poster for the Shanghai show of Hamlet
We have those rather indiscriminate standing ovations now, so why don’t we get more curtain calls in India?
I always say it’s a second performance, the audience is getting back at us. They’re performing. I love coming back to stage. Everybody loves it. We will come back, even in Prithvi, if we hear the applause continuing. We will because we know that particular tradition. But culturally it just doesn’t exist in India. The charm of the standing ovation is somehow lost, since every play seems to be getting them. Sometimes you know, from the character of the applause, that it’s whole-hearted and genuine and not just peer pressure.✑