My Travels With the Bard

My Travels With the Bard

To mark 400 years of Shakespeare’s death, a look at how his work has found new, vigorous life in India. First, Sanjna Kapoor recalls her journeys with her grandparents, Geoffrey and Laura Kendal.

All the world is a stage: Geoffrey and Laura (in black), Kendal (centre) on a visit to India. (Express archive photo)
All the world is a stage: Geoffrey and Laura (in black), Kendal (centre) on a visit to India. (Express archive photo)

Today, as we celebrate the bard’s life on his 400th death anniversary, it is only  fitting to begin with his own epitaph…

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed here
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones

If I think back to my earliest memories of Shakespeare, it is of the sheer beauty and rhythm of the spoken words. A deep, comforting emotion envelops me. Shakespeare’s stories were my bedtime tales, peppered with stories of my grandparent’s adventures traveling across India with Shakespeareana, their itinerant theatre company. Even today, when I need comforting, I turn to my Collected Works of Shakespeare, and dive into this deep ocean of imagery, cadence and memory.

“When Shakespeare played the stage was bare
Of castle, temple, font or stair
Two broadswords fought the battle out
Two supers made the rabble rout
The throne of Denmark was a chair ….
When Shakespeare played there was heard
The high unclouded summer of the word ”


These were the lines of an anonymous poet that my grandparents, Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, opened their show with. Their work enchanted school and college children for over three generations, across the Indian subcontinent, and later, in the UK and Europe. They travelled the length and breadth of India, performed in palaces, Edwardian theatres as well as atop tables tied together to make up a stage; before princes and prime ministers as well as students and lay audiences.

When I was 12, I had the good fortune of touring Ireland with my grandparents, at the back of their yellow Citroen, along with their costumes, a folding chair that was the “throne of Denmark”, curtains and sparse properties. My grandfather drove at 10 km an hour and so we crawled along the British countryside towards Ireland where we performed at four schools. I played Viola to my grandmother’s Olivia and Titania to my grandfather’s Oberon and Bottom. It was wonderful! That was the closest I ever got to experiencing their world.

A Footsbarn production.
A Footsbarn production.

The ritual of setting up the makeshift dressing room and stage; making one’s dressing table one’s temporary “home” with the small touches of family photos, postcards and good-luck charms; the smell of greasepaint; my grandfather’s beer-tinted perspiration, my grandmother’s Eau de Cologne; the hush of the audience’s anticipation — I was let in to their marvellous world.

Many years later, when I auditioned for Herbert Berghof’s Shakespeare class at his HB Studio in New York, Herbert asked me aggressively where I had been trained. I said I had not had any formal training but as he would have read in my application, I had worked with my grandparents. Shutting me up abruptly, Herbert said I was lying — a huge affront to my 19–year-old heart. And from then on, we had our swords drawn. However, the animosity soon melted away, as we began work, through scene studies, diving into the world of Shakespeare in performance. A truly wonderful time!

Years later, I got to embrace Shakespeare as director of Prithvi Theatre. I had the good fortune of being able to present two incredibly diverse yet extraordinary theatre companies to India: Footsbarn Travelling Theatre, with their enchanting Romeo & Juliet and Perchance to Dream, and Complicite’s Measure for Measure. Footsbarn evoked a deep sense of how I imagined Shakespeare actually did his own plays. And Complicite was completely opposite in its contemporariness and technical sophistication. Both were remarkable in their own ways. The greatest joy was watching the audience’s responses to these shows, whether in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad or Calcutta.

The actors in Measure for Measure were taken aback when an audience of schoolchildren kept them on their toes, showing surprising alertness and response to minute details of the show. It reconfirmed my grandfather’s insistence that the “best audience in the world was the Indian schoolgirl, who sat in rapt attention,

absorbing every word of Shakespeare, like a sponge”!
As each show would end with Puck’s words, so do I end this piece.

If we shadows have offended
Think but this and all is mended
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear
And this weak and idle theme
No more yielding but a dream
…. Give me your hands if we be friends
And Robin shall restore amends

The writer is a theatre personality and co-founder of Junoon.