SIMON MCBURNEY is impossible to label. On stage, he has the unfathomable energy of waves that lunge at the foot of cliffs, tentatively reaching for the skies. Off it, his restless eyes, his intense body language, his quicksilver tongue, couch life as a theatre of possibilities.
That's what surges through when Complicite — the loose-knit, multi-cultural performing ensemble he formed in Paris in 1983 with Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni — presented Shakespeare's ambiguous "Measure for Measure" in Mumbai and Bangalore in November as a torrent of stagecraft and high-tech wizardry, a liquid flow of uninterrupted scenes and text that writhe, seethe and sweep spectators away by sleight of theatre. At its very core is artistic director McBurney, playing the duke in disguise as a friar, a star even amidst a cohesive, brilliant ensemble. Even those initially sceptical tend to exit as converts to the McBurney stage spell.
No wonder the legendary Peter Brook said, "Simon McBurney and Complicite have created their own tradition and this is why they are so special, so valuable." With this production, McBurney respects the text, yet subverts it as only a true blue iconoclast can — by introducing cinema-like staging, by visual stage cues that run counter to speeches without blurring the foci, by yoking Shakespeare to sexual politics, boldly deviating into contemporary social commentary.
What makes McBurney one of the most talked-about directors on the world stage? Was it his experience of studying with legendary French mimes Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaultier? Does it stem from his American father and Irish mother, besides a Cambridge education steeped in Shakespeare?
McBurney recalls that he chose to stage "Measure for Measure" in 2004 as a self-confessed "theatre-maker, not director", mainly because Nicholas Hynter of the U.K. National Theatre wanted him to co-produce "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
"That was too obvious for me. So I chose this one. But when I read it again, I found I didn't understand it at all. I wanted to be challenged deeply, to be completely lost, and little by little to crawl out of that place of unknowing into another equally uneven piece of ground where I feel that I am fully engaging with the text," chuckles McBurney, bleary-eyed yet trooping on gamely, between five back-to-back shows at Bangalore's Ranga Shankara . "That's precisely why I wanted to do it. I didn't want to fit into what other people want me to do. My brother describes me as constitutionally disobedient. I'm interested in the limits of things."
McBurney constantly redefines himself within theatre by choosing alternate assignments. Such as directing Al Pacino in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" in 2002. Or directing Haruki Murakami's "The Elephant Vanishes" the next year. Or playing Leontes in an eight-player production of "A Winter's Tale" in 1992.
Was it a rebellion against existing theatre of the Eighties that impelled the Theatre du Complicite? "I wanted to make theatre that I wanted to play, what I'd want to see as a theatregoer," he recalls, his fingers brushing his thinning hair out of his eyes. "I tend to respond to my environment, to criticism, to what I read. To me, it means being alive to the circumstances around. Usually, I feel: Right now, I want to make this."
Was France a turning point in this life? "At 19 or 20, I was quite well-known for doing comedy, invited to perform on radio and TV. But I was distressed by the nature of the machine unfolding in front of me. I wanted to run away from it. At the same time, my father died," says McBurney intensely, replaying past scenes. "It was important to be in another environment, to start thinking, talking and dreaming in another language for four years. It gives you a more powerful perspective on the world. Besides, Paris in the Eighties was much more cosmopolitan than London. Shows by troupes from Poland, Germany, Italy and the Far East were very well attended."
What theatrical baggage did he jettison in Paris? "I began to think much more about the nature of action on stage. In other words, what you do is as important is as important as what you say, what you see is as important as what you hear," McBurney explains, amid a flurry of gesture. "In Britain, we call people who come to the theatre the audience, those who listen, while the French call them `les spectateurs,' those who watch. There's even that fundamental semantic difference."
A difference reflected in Complicite's startling forays beyond 28 in theatre. Such as a radio production of their lauded play "Mnemonic" for BBC 3, and collaboration with John Berger on a radio adaptation of his novel, To the Wedding. Even a multi-disciplinary installation performed at a disused tube station. But then, McBurney has also done a theatrical piece for the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, triggered by Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, "a piece I didn't understand and which I wasn't even sure I particularly liked."
Understanding McBurney can be as confusing as his radical, raw and questioning forays into the nature of the theatrically possible. How has he liberated Shakespeare from the tired British tradition? "The English tradition of playing him belongs to the intellectuals, the upper middle classes. It's become a bit of an enclave, which doesn't reach other people," he muses. "In other cultures, because you're not subject to tradition, you can be much freer with Shakespeare. It's important to not feel fear about not conforming to how your culture expects it to be."
Was playing "Measure for Measure" on Indian stages a liberating experience? "It's hard work. How do you speak Shakespeare and free it? How do you perform it and free it?" replies McBurney, rising from the empty auditorium to re-energise himself for the last show in Bangalore. "As we encountered three different theatre spaces, including the Jamshedji Bhabha and the Prithvi in Mumbai, we discovered so much about how to play this play, how we relate to each other, about the intimate nuances of the text because we are able to measure each show against the others.''
McBurney concludes with a paean to Indian audiences, "In India, we felt a true exchange with the audience, who participated through their concentrated listening, their sophisticated understanding of the language. It wasn't the false exchange of coming to India on a holiday and supplying money to an economy. So, we take back a deep sense of meaning, a sense of hope that is rare in our world. It is a gift of such preciousness that it is almost indescribable."
Cueing in to McBurney
On Shakespeare: Shakespeare writes for a continuous present. He was a great poet who didn't remain a prisoner of his time, unlike other writers like Jonson or Beaumont and Fletcher.
On Complicite: We don't have a set company. This is part of the economic reality of the 20th Century. Yet we aspire to be a consistent group with a high degree of creativity. Like a deep pool in a river, some of us go away, do others things, then come back.
On Measure for Measure: I didn't understand the play at all in the beginning. Through it, I explored the relationship between power and sexual politics. Shakespeare's perception of the exploitation of women by men was very dark. In Mumbai, it hit a political chord because of the recent clampdown on dance bars, which echoed Angelo's war on licentiousness.
On Indian influences: Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre was important for me. So were Kathakali and other traditional forms. And Neelam Mansingh Chowdhury...
(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2005)
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Measure for Measure: Bangalore 2005
Ranga Shankara. November 16 to 18.
Complicite's Measure for Measure, disconcerts us by bringing us face to face with a study of sexual politics, cloaked as power play. Perhaps a return to Elizabethan morals. It unearths questions that make us squirm: how does celibacy differ from chastity? What did Shakespeare, then 40, have in mind in this seldom-staged play?
Cinema-like in its multiple foci, Orson Welles-intense in its accents, McBurney's presentation sets a searing, interval-free pace, where scenes collide, where the text blurs, then coalesces into redefinitions for individual actors and viewers alike. The mood is relentless right from the haunting opening scene, where rain projections soak the stage floor, lovers embrace passionately and a cigarette glows in the distance.
Warmth is defined by the lack of it, politics by its present context, sex by its primary drive. This polemical, hard-driving interpretation is defined by its desire to deconstruct, then reconstruct, the Bard for our time. Its grey spaces are populated by the lecherous Angelo and double-talking Bush (on a monitor), by timeless sexual exploitation and social hypocrisy.
McBurney does not tamper with the text, but gives us double-edged technical clues to an insidious underlayer, that initially puzzles us, then make us clutch at our seats once we gauge its true import. How dues he cue us in? By prisoners dressed in Guantanamo Bay orange. By spying on intimate conversations through video devices. By layering the floor with tantalising checkerboards. By dressing sex workers like today's porn stars. By using mikes to couch aggression and antagonism, a la TV talk shows.
The soundscape is a dramatic overlay, yet immeasurably potent. The trendy gear echoes today's vivid street life. The overhead bulbs impact the shifting power equations, as much as the players ranged at stage-edge. Their constantly dissolving tableaux and forays through the audience, highlighted by Paul Anderson's brilliant lighting design, add up to a staging that is unforgettable, intangibly disturbing.
Because of the concluding twist, of minimal impact when read, feels like a blow in the solar plexus when Measure for Measure plays out after an unrelenting 120-minute, intelligence-led assault on our senses. Because McBurney provokes us with haunting images — such as Isabella/ the Madonna on the floorboards as she penetrates Angelo's moral turpitude. Or the rear screen that allows us to glimpse a shadowy tree beyond the stage, as we catch our collective breath. Even Angelo's white shirt stained with the blood that was not his to spill at will.
Beyond technical wizardry and stagecraft, what the audience will ultimately cherish is Complicite as an outstanding acting ensemble. Especially the subtly shaded duke, played by the inimitable McBurney as a character of unusual emotional intelligence. And Naomi Frederick's Isabella, whose delineation drew gooseflesh and tears with felicity.
With due respect to Shakespeare, it was the surreal mating of The Globe with Ranga Shankara that was the true measure of this production. Take another curtain call, Complicite!
(The Hindu Metroplus, 2005)