Saturday, May 18, 2013


Hannah Baird, Will Leach & Laura Jane Watling in  Hayavadana.  Photo: Natasha K. Stone
For the last few weeks, I've been working at East 15 Acting School (not in East 15 these days, but Southend, of all places).  They have a fantastic BA course in World Performance, which moves away from the Stanislavski-based conventions of drama schools, to take in a much broader range of forms and styles, with a particular emphasis on Asian theatre.  In previous years, Kristine Landon-Smith, David Tse and Janet Steele have been among the directors asked to direct the final-year shows - so I was very honoured to be approached this time.  As much as anything, it's a wonderful space for me to experiment with texts and styles that interest me for the company.  Girish Karnad's Hayavadana is a play that has fascinated me for some time, so it was wonderful to work on it with such an enthusiastic and appropriately trained group of people.

Here's what I wrote about it for the programme:

Hayavadana: the Hybrid Horse

“Mixture is how newness comes into the world”
(Salman Rushdie)

It’s self-evident that Hayavadana is a play about hybridity: a man has a horse’s head; friends find themselves sharing bodies, heads and a wife; the elephant-headed god presides.  What is perhaps less immediately obvious is that the play is itself a hybrid.  The main plot gives the appearance of being an Indian folk tale, but is in fact a European story, written in 1957 by Thomas Mann, The Transposed Heads.  The sub-plot of Hayavadana himself is Shakespearean: there’s a clear nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the man with an equine head; and Girish Karnad has acknowledged that the idea of a second plot “to tell the same story twice” was directly inspired by Shakespearean models.

The hybridity of the play lies in the fact that these European models are presented through a form derived from the Indian folk theatre, and particularly the Yakshagana of Girish’s native Karnathaka – a form filled with dance, music, narration, ornate costumes and make-up.  The play makes a case for the Indianess of Indian theatre – as Girish put it in a (hitherto unpublished) interview with me: “I felt it had to be held out as an agenda, as a manifesto, to say ‘I’m now going back to folk theatre’ and using folk theatre conventions to show that one could do something sensitive, intelligent, acceptable to an educated, intelligent audience in terms of that form.”  The play touched a nerve when it was first seen in 1971: India was slowly finding her feet after the process of decolonization, and there was a need simultaneously to relate Indian culture to the influences of an ever more internationally connected way of being, and to reassert the value of traditional forms that had been dismissed as primitive or shallow under colonialism.

Hayavadana’s hybridity finds a way of addressing a contemporary Indian audience that straddles the colliding worlds of the post-colonial.  Bringing it to Britain is an experiment in doing the same thing.  For us, this production has been about addressing the hybrid, intercultural nature of our own contemporary condition; embracing the complexity of a society shaped by multiple cultural influences; looking at what the encounter between Europe and Asia can say to our own post-colonial space; exploring how a quest for completeness can reflect our own national conversation.  We have done this against a background of scaremongering about immigration, and electoral gains for the radical right both in Britain and across Europe.  This is theatre that feels very immediate, very pertinent, very necessary.

And so it has been a deep joy for me to work with students from East 15’s World Performance course – because these young actors are capable of making the theatre our society needs.  It is not going to be enough for the actor of tomorrow to deliver naturalistic western text and psychological realism: indeed, I would say that to restrict our theatre to these approaches would be a betrayal of the international audience we now address that amounts to cultural imperialism.  The actor of tomorrow needs to embrace the glories of non-Western forms – Yakshagana, Jingju, Bunraku, Bharatanatyam – and to generate new energies through their collision with our own, more textual traditions.  These young actors are eager to learn from the Other – and in so doing, they show us the potential of tomorrow’s theatre to bring people together and regenerate our divided world.

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