FACE TO FACE
What does Simon say?
Theatre, for Simon McBurney, is a question of communicating with all, not just a restricted class.
MAKING CONNECTIONS: McBurney's trying to find ways to collaborate "with India". PHOTO: VIVEK BENDRE
SIMON MCBURNEY is late by almost half an hour. He apologises several times and his intense blue-grey eyes reflect his sincerity. McBurney, variously hailed as a genius by some and criticised as over the top by those who dislike him, artistic director of one of Britain's most "daring and inventive" theatre companies, Complicite, spent some time in India to recce theatres for the staging of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" later this year.
"Measure for Measure" is touring Argentina, New York, Paris and Milan and that prompted a desire in him to visit India. "We've never toured India before and we've been hoping to do that for many, many years. `Measure for Measure' is a big production but why worry? Why should that stop us? Why shouldn't we bring the best here," he says. Prithvi's Sanjna Kapoor has been inviting him since a while and the play could well be part of Prithvi Theatre Festival.
Between meeting Jamshed Bhabha of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) and wondering if he is appropriately dressed for it, and partying with members of Mumbai's theatre and movie world, McBurney is also thinking of a new way in which he can "collaborate" in India. "I became fascinated by the story of (Srinivasa) Ramanujan, and it has stimulated me to take it further. The meeting between G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan was very interesting and their relationship too," says McBurney.
His earliest encounter with Indian theatre was when he saw Habib Tanvir perform in London in the 1980s. "I was fascinated by his work to take the idea of an ancient form of popular theatre and transform it. It's not something we could emulate as we don't have the cultural heritage." Every time he has played outside the U.K. he has tried to make some connections. For instance in 1995, he played in Japan for the first time and it eventually led him to stage a co-production, "The Elephant Vanishes", based on Haruki Murakami's short stories.
LINK PAST TO THE PRESENT: A scene from McBurney's "Measure for Measure".
"We are hoping not only to bring our production but also make connections deeper than that. It's the beginning of something, which is not merely a business transaction. When you go somewhere else, you hope that it will bring about an exchange rather than it being some kind of glorified tourism," he says. And so the extraordinary collaboration between Hardy who brought Ramanujan to Trinity College at Cambridge in 1914, could well result in some exciting theatre in the future.
McBurney, winner of the Directors Guild Award for outstanding achievement in theatre this year, started as a comic actor in 1979 at the age of 19. He grew up with Shakespeare, and used to do nine plays a year at Cambridge and later trained for two years at the Jacques Le Coq School in Paris. "When I started I was interested in many, many different ideas. I started with the simplest things. I really started with the thought, with the moment when nothing is happening. What lies behind silence has always fascinated me," says McBurney. "Growing up in England where nobody says what they mean... what untold oceans of misery lie behind the simple questions of life! I made comedy out of that, out of little everyday things, as for instance in `A Minute too Late', (a play he wrote in 1984 after the death of his father)."
McBurney founded the Theatre du Complicite in 1983 with Annabel Arden, Fiona Gordon and Marcello Magni. Why the need for Complicite, as it's called now? "I wanted to make theatre that I did not see. I felt that theatre was only appealing to a certain restricted class, a kind of enclave. It was all driven by the idea of the play and, as a young man, what its limits were, what it did mean? Do we need theatre in any way? Is it an extra in our artistic and cultural life." He feels theatre remains a largely elitist art form in the U.K. "Is it a piece of mental cheesecake for the cultural elite or is there something necessary in it?"
For McBurney, cultural identity in England is a major concern. "No one knows who they are. There is a profound loss of cultural identity. The moment you destroy your rural society your cultural identity becomes complicated." The challenge for him is to make something for a generation brought up on popular culture but not lacking in the classical dimension. "The question is how you communicate. For instance in Shakespeare, there is a feeling it should be done as it was. What nonsense! We don't know how it was done. We can use everything of today's form of communication and in no way diminish the past. The most important political relationship of the past is its link with the present. One of the damaging notions is that the past is something separate save for a few who understand it. We are dead to our memories and to our past."
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