Most of us had our first exposure to Shakespeare in high school, typically reading the plays of “Romeo and Juliet”, King Lear”, Macbeth” or “Hamlet”. His most renowned comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing”, doesn’t usually crack the roster until university, which is a bit of a shame. Humour and love are two of the most easily understood themes worldwide, and Shakespeare’s delivered them in a way that stands independently of time.
Tarragon Theatre Artistic Director Richard Rose agrees, saying “Much Ado About Nothing” has elements any type of audience can enjoy. He describes one character’s willingness to marry another after just one sight as “a huge leap of faith, which is antithetical to falling in love, antithetical to our values of romance in Western culture.” But once audience members hang on for the ride and learn more about the characters’ motivations, Rose says they’ll soon see themselves on stage. “When you fall in love,” he says, “…you’re just lost. You’re suffering, you’re in terrible pain, you’re in anxiety, you don’t know where your life is going to go — the world is ending.”
Lest anyone’s hopes drop that this “Much Ado About Nothing” will have a dreary take and all comedic elements will be lost, there’s a plot twist. Rose has infused a strong sense of Bollywood into the play, giving it more colour, movement and excitement than Shakespeare’s original text. In between his direction of the play 10 years ago in Barrie and his latest effort at Tarragon Theatre, Rose watched a Bollywood movie with his kids and was struck by the hugeness of the characters and emotion, thinking the size of each was on the level of Shakespeare.
Rose also noticed a similarity in the physical expressions shown by Bollywood and Shakespearean characters, saying, “There’s kind of a restraint there, like, you don’t kiss in Bollywood films…It’s very chaste, but at the same time, it’s filled with sexuality — the dancing is sexual, and it’s all about being close and falling in love…To me, there was that kind of equation, I found, with Shakespearean plays, ’cause they’re very kind of chaste, too, but also highly sexualized.”
And when he thought back about his younger years and having in-laws in Brampton and having worked as a set designer in university with a temple dancer, Rose knew he had something on his hands. “It’s got a huge South Asian community, mainly Punjabi-Hindi or Punjabi-Sikh, but huge community in that,” he explains. “That’s kind of an interesting setting up there, because that’s Canada, right? It’s like the new Canada; it’s the new face of Canada and culture and there’s diverse communities up there.”
Going from the idea to the practicality of actually staging a Bollywood version of “Much Ado About Nothing”, Rose knew he needed a special pair of hands to assist him and turned to classical bharatanatyam choreographer Nova Bhattacharya. “We’ve known each other for a long time,” she says. “I’ve worked a couple of times on things at Tarragon where he’s brought me in.” Having that relationship in place meant the two could jump off from a high starting point and really mesh their ideas together.
“Richard had a lot of ambitious ideas about how to integrate dance into production, so in addition to the finale…it’s woven throughout the show,” she explains. “There’s a Halloween party scene where there’s some choreography, and then we open with the idea of a dance class.” One potential obstacle Nova had to face was how to choreograph the non-bharatanatyam-trained actors to make it look like they were actual dancers, but she managed quite easily by approaching it from a different angle. “It’s really interesting because not all the actors have formal dance training but they have this amazing set of tools that allows them to act like they can dance,” she says.
Nova also found that by renaming certain dance steps and giving them names like “The Hackeysack”, “The Cheese Grater” and “The Screen Swipe”, monikers the actors themselves came up with, helped greatly. “Instead of giving them dance vocabulary, names for all this stuff,” she says, “we just came up with a language that resonated with them and their minds so that when they’re doing the steps, they can hold onto those.”
And despite comedy and humour meaning different things in different cultures, Rose is confident he’s found the middle ground between Shakespeare and Bollywood. “What I think is always true of Shakespearean plays,” he says, “is that comedy is really about how people suffer love.”