Where can two young lovers meet in secret? A balcony on a moonlit night? It seemed a good idea to William Shakespeare — but he was staging Romeo and Juliet in the 16th century. Modern day offers cooler hangouts. A café is one of the options in a new website that lets users redesign Shakespeare’s classic balcony scene. An initiative of the British Council, “Mix the Play” enables users to choose from a pool of actors, music and locations to create their own theatre-film of Act II, Scene II. It was launched yesterday during the visit of Prime Minister Theresa May in Delhi.
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” says Juliet. She could be saying the lines while texting her delayed boyfriend during a date; she could be twirling down a wooden staircase as she blushes as pink as the frills on her gown; or she could be tied up in a locked room crying her heart out to walls that are hard of hearing. “There are 24 ways in which you can look at this scene in Mix the Play. Our main focus was to interest young people to interact with Shakespeare and experience the possibilities of theatre. We needed something simple, so we chose the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s favourite love story,” says artistic director Roysten Abel, who had apprenticed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and founded the Indian Shakespeare Company in 1995.
By clicking on https://mixtheplay.britishcouncil.org/, you enter the complex world of theatre as a director. “Romeo and Juliet are two lovers separated by their families,” says Abel, giving you the background. You can tell the story in different styles — Traditional, Cultural Divide or Modern Life — based on Shakespeare’s imagining, religious politics and corporate values, respectively.
A click on an arrow takes you to the next stage — auditions. Kalki Koechlin or Kriti Pant for Juliet? Adil Hussain or Tushar Pandey for Romeo? Hussain brings the vulnerabilities of an older man in love while Pandey, is confident and unpolished. Koechlin makes for a fair-skinned Juliet, who looks out from the screen without blinking — a good director could use the edge of mystery to create an extra layer of narrative. Pant seems friendly enough but there are deep wells of emotion under her smile — only a director as talented as she can draw out the shades of innocence and sophistication.
Next, you chooses whether to stage the production in a theatre or off-site, such as an old bungalow full of photographs and history. After picking between two soundtracks by Simon Baker, the director is presented with a poster with your name on the credits. Press ‘Go’ to watch the play you have created with the actors, music and locations of your choice. You can upload it on a social media platform and mark it to #Shakespearelives and #Mixtheplay. “If you, the director, have picked a certain scene or actor, there is a reason you have done it. You begin to think,” says Abel. One of the powerful scenes is from Cultural Divide, when the lovers have been locked up by their families to keep them apart.
Juliet in a red sari, is a Hindu woman, kept in a white cubicle while Romeo, in the clothes of a Muslim, presses against a red wall and says, “Let me be taken. Let me be put to death. I am content.” “I am doing Shakespeare after a long time. Roysten (Abel) allows actors to explore their vision of the character and scene, even as he gently guides us towards a common good,” says Adil, whose Romeo ranges from the playful to the agonised.
Every permutation and combination leads to a different mood. For one scene, the dialogues were pre-recorded and the actors asked to emote without speaking. “This was the toughest and left me stumped. We had to express the lines without saying them,” says Koechlin, an award-winning actor. Pant, who has been on stage since 2007, approached the project as a story of wedges between two lovers. “The wedges could be religious, traditional or due to choices of modern living. The axe of fate is hanging over their heads. This was true when we shot in real locations or in theatre settings,” says Pant. Mix the Play was introduced in the UK in 2016 as part of Shakespeare Live and users could make short films of a scene from Act III, Scene II of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romeo and Juliet is the second chapter of the initiative. The platform is user-friendly and includes little details, such as director’s sketches and notes, to give users a personal experience of creating a play.