On one winter evening earlier this year, theatre personality Atul Kumar opened the gates of his enchanting residency, The Company Theatre Workspace in Kamshet, to art-lovers with a thoughtfully-designed dusk-to-dawn festival. At around 4 am, when the guests’ energies seemed to have dipped and their eyes were getting droopy, Rupesh Tillu unleashed Madbeth on them. For many, this zany physical comedy act — a mix of slapstick, acrobatics, mime and music — served as a ‘kick’, stronger than a cup of cappuccino with double shots.
The performance was highly interactive. Tillu demanded each time there is a murder, the audience let out a collective “wow” and applaud when he speaks in tongue-twisters, with spit flying through the air. That kept the sleepy audience wide awake. If that was not enough, he even made members from the audience come on stage and be a part of the performance.
Designed as a black-box performance, Madbeth is a devised theatre piece, inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this version, the classic tragedy ends up being a rib-tickler. “This is my attempt to make the classic accessible and contemporary. Initially, it was a 30-minute show as part of my Master in Fine Arts (MFA) thesis and was first performed in December 2009. However, I kept adding things to it and now it is 75-minute long,” says the actor.
While Indian audience can be painfully unresponsive at times, Tillu says he applies some basic techniques to involve them in the show. These techniques come from his intensive training in physical comedy. He did his MFA from the National School of Dramatic Arts, Stockholm, with a specialisation in physical comedy. He is also trained in clowning with Clowns without Borders, Sweden.
Born in Mumbai’s Girgaum to former mill workers, Tillu’s journey to Sweden and theatre experience sound like a dream. “My parents worked in Swastik Oil Mill, and during the ’80s strike, they lost their jobs. In spite of that, my father, who indulged in amateur theatre, never lost his interest in it,” recalls Tillu. Even though he was part of school and college productions, his professional training started when he joined Alok Ulfat’s theatre group, Avikal. He did theatre with them for nearly four years and simultaneously worked with his elder brother, who provided logistical support to shipping companies. It is at Avikal that he met film-maker Anand Gandhi and acted in three plays that the latter wrote. Years later, he would play Ajay, Sohum Shah’s Sweden-based friend, in Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus.
In 2003, he met famous theatre artiste Kefas Berlin who had brought down school children from Sweden. This meeting served as a catalyst and he quit his brother’s business to move to Sweden to study theatre in 2004. Though, initially, he was supposed to be there only for a month, Tillu ended up spending nine years. This proved to be the most eventful period for his career, during which he travelled with Clown without Borders to Moldova, Palestine, Israel and Egypt. He also met musician Emma Gilljam, whom he later married and now has a 20-month-old daughter with. In September 2012, he formed Theatreact, with which he has created plays like Ragulabuggla, Boomerang and Hamlet Incognito.
Earlier this year, Tillu decided to return to India as he wants to try his hands at movies — as an actor as well as a film-maker. He made his direction debut with a documentary feature on Theyyam dancers, The Living Gods, co-produced by the Swedish National Television, which premiered at Art FIFA, Montreal, in March 2014. “I have also directed and written two shorts. While one is in English, the other is non-verbal,” he says. In India, he is also working with young actors. “I am trying to create work with new people. That apart, for CentreStage festival at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), I have proposed a non-verbal dark comedy, which will be a devised piece about two brothers stuck in a limbo, waiting for the right phone call.”
After the Kamshet show, Tillu has performed at Prithvi Theatre to packed houses. On July 4, he made the audience at Experimental Theatre, NCPA, shed their inhibition and be part of Madbeth. When he performed there, his mother watched Madbeth for the first time. His parents never missed his plays in school and college. However, since his theatre idiom has undergone a vast change since then, Tillu is curious to know how she would react to such a piece.