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[ SUNDAY, APRIL 09, 2006 12:00:00 AM]
Alyque Padamsee closes his eyes and remembers a scene from Macbeth. Not the Macbeth that he’s currently directing, due to open less than a fortnight from now. But a Macbeth from way back in 1941 when Padamsee was just a child. “I remember a voice speaking and face illuminated by a single beam of light,” says Padamsee. He didn’t understand much of the play, yet he found it hugely exciting. Says Padamsee: “I did advertising to pay the bills but my heart was in theatre,” that Macbeth was the start of it all. “It was the first play I saw,” he says.

The face illuminated by the light was his elder brother Sultan Padamsee who founded the Theatre Group of Bombay, along with Ebrahim Alkazi and Hamid Sayani, when he was just 18. Sultan Padamsee directed and starred in that production of Macbeth, and rehearsed many others in the drawing room of the big old flat in Colaba where Padamsee grew up and where we’re sitting now.

“I used to watch them rehearsing from my bedroom door,” he says. Sultan Padamsee was a huge influence on his younger brother, inspiring his involvement in theatre, yet his own story was tragic. One of those precocious talents that burns out fast, he committed suicide when he was just 24.

His brother’s shadow could be one reason why it’s taken Padamsee so long to come to
Macbeth. He’s certainly thought about it before. “I am fascinated by power,” he says, and out of Shakespeare’s canon its the plays that focus on messianic figures who seek, wield and are usually struck down by their quest for power that he’s drawn to, rather than the romances and the comedies. So apart from a youthful Taming of the Shrew back in 1954, his other experiences with Shakespeare have been Hamlet (1964), Julius Caesar (1979) and Othello (1990). But its only now, 65 years after his brother’s Macbeth, that Padamsee has come to Shakespeare’s most nakedly power-obsessed play. In the other plays the pursuit of power comes entwined with politics (Julius Caesar), family feuds (Hamlet) and sexual jealousy (Othello).

In Macbeth its a bid for power alone, set in a nightmar-ishly compressed frame (Macbeth is almost half the size of Hamlet) and written in language of hallucinatory poetry. When the play starts King Duncan has rewarded Macbeth highly, making him Thane of Cawdor, and clearly has no fear of him or why would be come to stay in his castle. Macbeth himself seems to have had no thoughts of a power grab, until confronted, even forced into it, by the witches and his wife. Why this should happen is something that every director of Macbeth must grapple with.

This happened some years back when he picked up a book called Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine by Andre Van Lysebeth that detailed how the Indian tantric tradition could have spread to Europe along with the gypsies, influencing Western traditions of witchcraft. Padamsee made the link the Macbeth at once and as he read more, he found more parallels.

Even more important is the union of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who critic Harold Bloom cheerfully suggests are the happiest married couple in all Shakespeare’s work. In tantra power comes when Shiva and Shakti, masculine and feminine forces combine, the latter giving the former power to act. This is what happens in Macbeth, where Shakti/Lady Macbeth infuses her husband with the power to kill Duncan — which, significantly, she tries, but can’t do herself.

With the help of Subhojit Dasgupta, an expert of tantra, Padamsee worked his way through the play, developing the tantric interpretation both as an internal explanation for the action and as an external way of connecting with an Indian audience. Internal logic matters too, and this is why the tantric explanations for the actions are important. Padamsee’s tantric Macbeth will be all the more interesting for following on from another very powerful Indian interpretation of the play in Vishal Bharadwaj’s film Maqbool. Dispensing with Shakespeare’s language, the essential story was put in the context of Mumbai’s underworld, with Duncan as the mafia don, Abbaji, and Maqbool his faithful lieutenant.

As with Padamsee’s tantric Macbeth, Bharadwaj’s film made a brilliant connection with Indian occult tradition in the diamond lines of the janampatra, the horoscopes drawn by Pandit and Purohit, the comic-sinister duo of corrupt policemen who perform the roles of the witches. The janampatra lines form a visual motif in the film, repeatedly drawn by the duo as they see the drama unfold to its predicted end. (The film’s explanation of the prophecy of the sea overcoming Maqbool probably works even better than Shakespeare’s explanation of Birnam wood coming marching down on Dunsinane castle).

Bharadwaj’s film makes one big change in making Nimmi, the Lady Macbeth character mesmerisingly acted by Tabu, not Maqbool’s wife, but the mistress of the Don and the object of Maqbool’s lust.

Padamsee has seen and admired the film, “at least the first half.” To be fair to Bharadwaj, critics have complained that Macbeth’s second half itself is weak, with Lady Macbeth hardly appearing except for her sleep walking sequence.

Padamsee doesn’t agree with this. “Its possible to make the second half work, and we have,” he says, without giving away how exactly his interpretation works. “Got to keep some suspense for the play!” He does point out that Lady Macbeth’s fading out is consistent with tantra. “After Shakti gives Shiva her power, she dwindles to becoming a shell of herself and that is what happens to Lady Macbeth.”

However the tantric elements work out, when the play opens, audiences can be assured of a spectacle. Padamsee’s Macbeth will be an ensemble production of the kind that is becoming ever harder to put on these days. With a total cast and crew of 100 people, just getting people together is a Herculean task. “Actors are all doing TV these days, or now they’re doing alternative films,” grouses Padamsee.

Padamsee is planning for 20 performances in Mumbai, and then plans to go national, if sponsors can be found. There is also interest from abroad - perhaps even to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, he says. That would be an interesting way to complete a circle — a Scottish play with perhaps Indian roots in tantra/witchcraft performed by an Indian troop at the centre of Scottish power. It would be a circle to match the personal one Padamsee is making in doing the play his brother hooked him with, 65 years ago.

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