When Jatinder Verma formed Tara Arts in 1977 in response to a racist murder, he knew that he had begun a mission that would occupy his whole life. Now, as Tara celebrates its 30th birthday with a production of The Tempest in the West End, Verma tells Caroline Bishop about the challenge of connecting people through the medium of theatre…
It may not seem immediately clear how a play written in the early 17th century could reflect contemporary society, but listening to Verma speak about his adaptation of The Tempest is to wonder why it had never seemed so obvious before. But then, Verma does have 30 years’ experience in adapting classic plays under his belt.
“The play is essentially about a man obsessed with vengeance, revenge,” he tells me, when we meet at the Arts theatre where The Tempest opened on 8 January. “And it seemed to me that today we are surrounded by people who are obsessed with revenge, for all sorts of things, because of political fears or because of a slight that they suffered. So it seemed to me that The Tempest is an eminently contemporary play.”
Verma, who adapted and directs the production, has set Shakespeare’s last play in a “broadly Muslim-Mediterranean world”, in order to highlight its contemporary relevance. “What had inspired me to do the play was the characters of people like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the surgeon who has now become the right-hand man of Osama bin Laden; equally the doctors who attempted to blow up Glasgow airport. And what had struck me was that here are men who in today’s society would be considered the most knowledgeable – they’ve studied a lot, they know about human anatomy and so on. How are these men turning what we would all consider to be the gains of knowledge to such evil ends? And it seemed to me that Prospero is very much part of that type, and that’s why I’ve set it in this broadly Muslim world, really so that we are aware of the contemporary resonance, without seeking to push it too far.”
Tara’s production of The Tempest – which has Miranda clothed in a burkha as a symbol of the confinement Prospero imposes on her – shows that, 30 years after he founded Tara Arts, Verma is no less questioning of contemporary society than he was at the beginning. “We have never shirked from being willing to reflect the political or the social realities around us,” he says.
Those three decades have seen Tara build a reputation for producing cross-cultural adaptations of classic texts by Gogol, Molière, Ibsen and Shakespeare, transposed to Asian settings and produced with multicultural casts. Though the company has also produced modern texts – including Verma’s own trilogy about Asian-African-European mass migration, Journey To The West – the director feels that it is the classics that really help open up a dialogue with the audience. This is what Tara has always aimed to do, ever since it staged its first production, Sacrifice, an adaptation of the classic anti-war play by Bengali poet, playwright and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore.
"We have never shirked from being willing to reflect the political or the social realities around us"
It was in response to the racist killing of 17-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall in 1976 that Verma and a few friends decided to stage Sacrifice. Angered and frustrated by the murder, they wanted to try and counteract the growing sense of disconnection between people which they believed was at the root of racism. “What theatre has the power to do is to make connections between the performers and the audience, connections which also open up people to the fact that another person’s experience, or the way they look, or the way in which they articulate, is actually not that far removed from one’s own,” he says. “We have an audience who we don’t really know, who are not necessarily the same as the cast, who then engage with us over the course of two hours on a kind of journey of connection. That’s what Tara has been about.”
Growing up in Kenya to Indian parents, with whom he emigrated to Britain in 1968, Verma knows better than anyone of the need for connection between cultures. His own experiences and background, as well as those of the actors that he casts, are what feed Tara’s productions, which aim to reflect the contemporary mix of cultures and language that make up British society today and demonstrate that theatre is both for everyone and can be performed by everyone.
As such, Verma has always sought to challenge outdated attitudes of what type of theatre is suitable for whom by adapting European and British classics that may be a surprising choice to some. “Tara is said to be an Asian company; there is an unspoken text which is that the classics of world theatre, and particularly of European theatre, are not really our cup of tea,” he explains. “I’ve always actually said, well why not? They are part of my world of the theatre. So it’s great that we are also able to give opportunities for young Asian, black actors and white actors – this is the most multicultural company that I think anyone will see on the London stage today – for them to actually show the fact that they can also deal with Shakespeare and it can have meaning for them. I think that’s the ultimate statement of the power of theatre – that it belongs to everyone.”
One way in which Verma’s cast for The Tempest brings new meaning to Shakespeare is through language. Over the years the director has developed a linguistic style for his productions that he terms ‘Binglish’, which is part of his desire to reflect contemporary British society by also reflecting the melting pot of languages and dialects within it. “The moment you walk down any street in England you hear all sorts of varieties of English, but also other languages, and that’s part of the mix that has made modern life in Britain,” he says. “Because of the types of people that we’ve [cast] and the fact that they have other languages in them, means that I can exploit those languages, and create that sound with English. So for example Caliban, he is also a native Swahili speaker, and it seemed to me highly appropriate that when he is thinking about his mother, that the mother tongue comes forth, and then he gets into the English verse, which is what Prospero has taught him.”
This melange of languages was a shock, at first, to the National Theatre audience that saw Verma’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe in 1989. Verma was the first British Asian director to be invited to stage a play at the National, and did so in his own unique cross-cultural style, with an all-Asian company. “So for the National, for the first time ever up to that point, a play began in Urdu,” he smiles. “There was a wonderful moment because for the first two minutes or so I saw audiences look at their programmes and remind themselves they were at the right show. And they went through that and ended up very quickly laughing with the characters whenever there was a funny moment. By the end of the show it was a piece like any other, but they had to go through that initial moment. And that was one of my proudest moments, to say well yes, we accept that there is a certain foreignness here… but, going back to the same point, we’re all the same.”
"I think that’s the ultimate statement of the power of theatre – that it belongs to everyone"
Nearly 20 years on, though diversity is embraced in British theatres more than it was in 1989, Verma feels there is still a way to go before multiculturalism becomes integral to our theatres. “I think clearly there are many more companies; you see more Asian, black, non-English work in the theatre, which is also very good. So in that sense I think the whole field has expanded even more. I am still not entirely convinced that we exist in each other’s imaginations, and I think that’s a kind of road we need to continue on, but not to fool ourselves that we have arrived at multiculturalism… If I look around at the numbers of plays that are being done and who is doing them, then I have to say that that’s not quite the case yet, still, in the theatre. There are, for example, no [black or Asian] artistic directors of theatre houses, despite a near 30-year period of investment. There are no major theatre players in that sense in our established theatre buildings. I think that over the next 30 years that’s the thing that’s got to change.
“It’s still the case that by and large Asian and black work becomes a kind of rarity in the programming within any one year,” he continues. “One wants to get to the point where it’s not a rarity, you can have two or three happening within the course of the same year.”
While progress is being made in London, outside the capital Verma feels the situation is very different, and as a touring company Tara Arts is in a position to try and influence change. “Once you leave London the condition is radically different. The number of theatre houses reduces and therefore the choice that you have, say if you are in Blackburn, of the kind of plays that you would see, is very, very restricted. Also, what is very true is that outside of London I think there is still quite a real geographical sense of a divide between races and cultures. It opens up the challenge for why we must continue to, not just do theatre, but do touring theatre.”
It seems that, three decades on, Verma’s mission to connect people through theatre is just as relevant as ever – and it has become a collective issue. “It seems everyone is faced with this challenge – how do we get audiences in? And what they have all realised is the way to get all this is not by shirking diversity but in some ways embracing it,” he says. “That is making a huge demand on the kinds of productions you do.” He gives the example of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy about class and social climbing, Absurd Person Singular, which is currently enjoying a new production in the West End, and suggests that a multicultural cast for this traditionally white play would better reflect the lives of audiences. “It’s actually a play about the English middle classes. I look at an Asian middle class or a black middle class, actually they’re not very different from a white middle class – same aspirations, same neuroses, all that goes on. So I think we just have to be more imaginative in the way in which we look at that.”
“In that way,” he continues, “I think what you will ensure is that the diversity of the population that you have in the country actually becomes a real asset in the house, that you are not depending on the Asian show to bring in the Asians – that’s fine, they’ll come then, but will they come to Henry VI? How do you get them to come to Henry VI? I think the only way to do it is… this idea of mixing up casts, of producers; it’s right through the repertoire rather than looking for a particular play which reflects a particular community.”
Judging by his future ideas for Tara Arts, Verma will, of course, be at the forefront of this. His ambitious plans include presenting a season of Eastern European plays, and another of contemporary works from India, as well as a new adaptation of Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba. Possibly we may even see Verma adapt an Ayckbourn (“I’m dying to do one of his plays”). Continuing to embrace both classics and modern plays, and reflecting the breadth and depth of cultures and languages in Britain, Tara Arts looks set to carry on into its fourth decade proving that theatre is for everyone.
The Tempest plays at the Arts theatre until 27 Jan.