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Meera Syal. Courtesy Jillian Edelstein
Meera Syal. Courtesy Jillian Edelstein

Much Ado About Nothing spiced up with Meera Syal

The Royal Shakespeare Company promises audiences in Britain a sensual overload this summer, with the Bard's unsettling comedy of love getting an injection of Indian colour and culture.

The Royal Shakespeare Companyís production of Much Ado About Nothing promises audiences in Britain a sensual overload this summer. The Bardís unsettling comedy of love has been given an injection of Indian colour and culture by the director Iqbal Khan and the RSCís award-winning associate designer Tom Piper. Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane travelled to London to meet Piper and hear about his creative vision for the play, which runs from July 26 to September 15 as part of the Cultural Olympiadís World Shakespeare -Festival.

Tom, is the company's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing a nod to Hindi cinema, taking inspiration from Bollywood?

Although there are of course influences from Bollywood film and there might be the odd musical number, my response is normally to abstract things slightly so they don't become a literal filmic look for something. I like to let the words tell the story and create the imagery. Plus, Much Ado is probably one of Shakespeare's most literal plays and does benefit from a strong visual setting.

Just before Christmas, Iqbal Khan - who is of Punjabi-Pakistani origin - and I went to India. We did a lot of research in Delhi and met many in the theatre community. We also managed to find an Indian costume designer to collaborate with.

If you are, as we are, fundamentally a British-Asian cast, there's the danger of having a rather expat view of India. So hopefully, by having an Indian costume designer we'll prevent ourselves from doing a "postcard production", as we call it.

It wasn't taken lightly, the decision to go for India, and was also partly due to the fact we had Meera Syal, the very well-known comedic actress, in the lead role.

Did your original vision for the production change post-trip?

Well, after I came back I did think the image we had printed in our brochure felt a bit wrong. It is a holy festival type of image and actually I feel our production will be more akin to something like Monsoon Wedding, which will celebrate both traditional culture and assess the impact of modernity.

It will touch upon very strong issues such as honour, arranged marriages and the like that are in Much Ado About Nothing, but show them in a more contemporary light. Rather than us saying "it's all set in the days of the Raj", it's more representative of the country now.

Tell me more about the look and feel of your modern interpretation?

For me as a designer, the big struggle is how to create a world for the play that doesn't feel like a Disney version of India.

When I went to Delhi, I loved the old part of the city, the layering of buildings, the way everything just grew on top of everything else, where you didn't know if something was a tree or electric cables. The energy and the life of it, I found so enriching.

When I was there, I also went to Kingdom of Dreams, which is a show just outside of the city. You go into a food hall with many reproductions of Indian buildings and painted skies, beneath which fast food is on display.

So hopefully, we will create something similar in the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon; in the courtyard, the foyer and through to the theatre, taking people on a journey with lots of street food being sold. We want to create the atmosphere of a bustling Indian city and then move into something that's simpler when we get to the space for the play itself.

What of the costumes, with Indian fabrics sourced from London to Delhi. Did you also draw upon the RSC's vast wardrobe?

There will of course be some beautiful wedding costumes but there will probably also be people in T-shirts and jeans because that's the nature of it. The RSC has more than 600 linear metre rails of costumes sitting in a big warehouse so all designers use that as a resource. Everything is recycled, remade or adapted.

Explain the process of making the set come to life.

I took many photographs in India, and started to develop ideas for the sets through sketches before working on a model which is a 1:25 scale version of the theatre. It's like sketching in 3D, making shapes in polyboard, chopping bits up, playing with lots of bits I have in my studio. Then I'll normally meet the director to discuss colours etc and it becomes a collaboration - then I'll go away and refine it. Then there's the awful bit where I'll be told it's far too expensive and I'll have to work out what was really important.

But it's a big team effort and the RSC company size is probably about 600 people in total, including all the different departments. For example, there's a costume department of about 30 people, we have male and female cutters, a dye department, boots and armoury, too. Then there's a whole props department and a drawing office, carpentry and metal workshops.

Do you feel you are leaving yourself open to criticism with this adaptation?

You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. As a theatre artist, every time you put on a play, you are making an interpretation. Even if in Jacobean dress, you are looking at that period through 21st-century eyes. I can't go back to Elizabethan England, so I have to respond to the text, the actors and company working with me to create something that feels true to the play.

When Iqbal and I first went to India, we weren't sure whether we could find elements of society to reflect without being patronising - and I think we have. I know from my time spent with him in India he is very thoughtful and committed; careful to make sure the roots of his production are sound and right. He's not trying to make it look exotic. I fully expect to be criticised but I'm hoping it will tread the tightrope.

We have a huge Indian population in Dubai - might you tour here?

Well, possibly if it's a success. I also did Richard III with Kevin Spacey which went to Dubai, so I am well aware that if the will is there then we could go there.

To read Piper's blog and for ticket information go to www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk

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