It was rather fitting to stage a tale of illicit love on an Indian campus in the 1940’s, Vijay Tendulkar’s A Friend’s Story, in the sparkling and superbly intimate atmosphere of the Sam Wannamaker playhouse last week. That supposed replica of Shakespeare’s and Richard Burbage’s covered theatre, just over the river, although the Wannamaker playhouse is right next to the modern Globe. Which, at the turn of the Sixteenth Century, saw a major theatrical transition from the open air rounds of Elizabethan London to more claustrophobic Jacobean stages, a considerable hike in ticket prices and the appearance of candlelight too, the precursor to that famous ‘Limelight’, in this case those two huge candelabra that hang over this exquisite little stage and light the actors’ very internal journey through love and obsession, to betrayal and the search for redemption. One that, since it came to the Playhouse for only two nights, having toured so widely in India, candles adding new shades and shadows to the plainer black backdrop of the original staging, was exciting both for itself, not least because the play caused a storm when it was first produced in India in 1981, and for an insight into this always unusual setting and what it can offer to modern audiences.
So unfolded a tale beautifully told though, and one avoiding the overtly political, if human relationships are always political, essentially of a fateful love triangle between Mitra, the strident, anguished and very touching tom-boy outcast, always seeking her true place, the manipulative Nama and the innocent hinge of this tragic love story, Babu, at once gentle narrator and embroiled protagonist, played brilliantly by Abhay Mahajan. This sharp six hander is a somewhat old-fashioned story, much as it has been controversial in India for its themes of repressed homosexuality, or more controversially in India, Lesbianism, so perhaps it found a new poignancy in such a very old fashioned setting. Though it was inevitable too that sitting there I found my thoughts at times drifting back to the true story of the theatre itself and the little revolution it represented in its day.
A Friend’s Story has been billed as revolutionary, and indeed, in the Globe’s season of Love has consciously been brought here to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of Homosexuality in the UK. Watching it in this particular space then highlighted for me the strange revolutions of time and cultures, from that ‘brazen’ age of seething Elizabethan sexuality, indeed Homosexuality especially prevalent in the Court of James I, right through to the murderous repressions of 1940’s morality in India. Although, as the title suggests, it is not essentially sexuality that matters, or precipitates tragedy, but the natural dynamics of affection, identity and especially jealousy that are present in all human relationships, and impact friends as much as lovers.
Framed by the ever-present theatre of changing social mores, in Shakespeare’s day the revolution happening was a stratification of theatre itself. That also saw actor-writers like Ben Jonson bemoaning the very commercialisation of theatre and the success of places like the Globe, in a world where the audience now sat upon the stage, and paid to do so. Though it was now ticket prices and sharply increasing social divisions, as the Jacobean Court consciously became a theatre of aristocratic superiority, that defined society, the face of what was publicly acceptable and the hypocrisies always beneath the surface, appearing so often in those blood thirsty Jacobean revenge tragedies. Although this play is also billed as Tendulkar’s Greek tragedy it does not have Shakespearean proportions, but was a pertinent choice for such a stage, even if for only so short a time, and a fine little production too.
Kate Macdonald went to see A Friend’s Story courtesy of The Globe Theatre. A Friend’s Story was directed and designed by Akash Khurana.