To beat the battle drums in the face of an old order, Roysten Abel chose to adapt the most angst-ridden of William Shakespeare’s plays. Fifteen years later, his Othello in Black and White — with a Kathakali dancer as Othello — is a landmark production in Indian theatre. It is also the only play from the country to win the Fringe First, an award vied for by the best in the world and given at the Edinburgh Fringe arts festival in Scotland.
Delhi theatre in 1999 was the playing field of senior directors with traditional ideas, in which a crop of new names was trying to leave an imprint. “The old guard held the reins and young directors found it difficult to get funding, acknowledgement or space,” says Abel, “All that angst was channelled into Othello.”
He adapted Othello to reflect the current reality — Iago became a mentor to Othello, rather than Shakespeare’s vision of a youthful friend. “When I approached Barry John to play the role, he asked, ‘Why would you want an old Iago?’” says Abel. As John loomed in evil glory and crafted the trusting Othello’s downfall, the stage parodied Abel’s own fight against the establishment.
Othello in Black and White revolves around an English-language theatre group in Delhi rehearsing to put up a show of Othello. Each actor is driven by their personal ambitions, especially the ageing owner of the company, who is a walk-in for the lead role. Except that the guest director, an Italian, takes a shine to a young Kathakali dancer, who has been brought in from Assam to train the group, and casts him as Othello. “Jealous souls will not be answered so,” as Shakespeare writes in the text.
On stage and away, the performers and protagonists are locked in a dance of ego, deceit and destructive love. The actors bring in their baggage of emotions to the rehearsal, giving the text not only relevance but also visceral power. “Except Desdemona, who loves him, Othello is used, misled, instigated and exploited by the cast. Vulnerable in a new city, the dancer gradually becomes like the suspicious and crazed Othello until one does not know if Othello kills Desdemona or the actor killed the actress,” says Abel.
This was Abel’s first ensemble production and featured Barry John as Iago, Adil Hussain as Kathakali dancer Othello, Lushin Dubey as Desdemona and Dilip Shankar as Cassio, and Vivek Mansukhani as Rodrigo. To reflect the multi-culturalism of post-liberation urban India, the languages used were English, Hindi, Assamese and Italian. Abel tore up the script and the troupe devised the story. They pared down the frills — the stage is bare, the costumes black — and drew out the essential soul of the play through carefully-twisted plotlines and performances. One of the powerful sequences is the killing of Desdemona, etched out in Kathakali. “Till date, I consider it one of my most beautiful scenes. We worked to find the emotion of the speech in a way that it could be spoken in English but gesticulated in Kathakali moves and mudras,” says Abel.
Contemporary theatre was experimenting with Western scripts and Indian forms at the time. BV Karanth had interpreted Macbeth in Yakshagana and Kalamandalam, Thrissur, had staged a solo of Othello in Kathakali. These influences permeated Othello in Black and White. The play even included cynics’ comments. “Some people said that directors were using Indian folk forms to give an exotic appeal to their plays and get invited abroad,” says Abel. The first dialogue in Othello in Black and White is, “Why the fuck are we doing Othello in Kathakali?” “Because we have an Italian director who wants to take the play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” replies the owner of the company, played by John.
Abel interprets Shakespeare’s themes in Othello, especially racism, through a clash between the urban and the rural, people from north India and the Northeast, new talent and the establishment, and between the English-speaking troupe and the Kathakali dancer, who knows only Assamese. “When Adil spoke in broken English, the audience members thought it was a comedy and laughed. When they realised that they had fallen into the trap, they were squirming,” says Abel.
After several packed shows in India, the play was staged in a church in Edinburgh where 40 people turned up on the first two days. “On the third day, a review came out in the New Scotsman, we had a five-star rating and we were sold out for the rest of the festival,” says Abel.
The foreign audience grasped the politics of language and hierarchy that was set in faraway India. “They saw Barry John, an Englishman, turning up to audition for the role of Othello with boot polish to darken his face, losing to an unknown Kathakali dancer and then conspiring against the young man,” says Abel. “That’s what sets Shakespeare apart. The writing has the flexibility to adapt to multiple scenarios and the layers in the story just don’t end.”