Hard Places in India: a designer’s-eye account

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Hard Places by Farhad Sorabjee, a Mumbai-based writer, had been previously produced in India by a remarkable company called Rage, mainly known in the UK as the Royal Court’s “go-to” for finding and supporting Indian playwrights. Hard Places was read at the Court, then picked up by Tinderbox Alley, which brought The Mercury Theatre in Colchester on board, with Rage as the Indian partner. The cast comprised two UK-based performers, Jasmina Daniel and Nabil Stuart, and one from Rage, Shernaz Patel, who is widely recognized in India, not least for her film work. This new production, directed by Chris White, was rehearsed and shown in Colchester before travelling to India.

As designer I needed to make something that translated both practically and culturally. The script was inspired by the Golan Heights and the remarkable fact that families on either side of the border use megaphones to converse.  Farhad, however, set his play on a non-specific border, though we get enough detail for it to feel real.

We were very aware that in India the play’s neutrality would be overshadowed by Kashmir. One of our concerns was to create a world that felt real but avoided geographical specificity. Shernaz’s advice was invaluable, especially with the costumes, in helping us find fabrics that wouldn’t carry any strong political or cultural signals in India. When some of the costumes are potentially loaded with significance – such as a headscarf – the detail is crucial.

The play also shifts abruptly from naturalism to a kind of magic realism, as suddenly we find the dead can speak with the living. Thus, the representation of the political border also needed to give us the visual language for a more metaphysical border. We treated the setting in a sculptural, minimal way, with a simple sweep of border zone, disappearing upstage into false perspective and downstage into piles of rubbish. When the dead stood up to speak, some of the rubbish also rose, floating upwards as if suddenly weightless. Rubbish, we decided, was entirely international. And so it proved, with the rubbish collected in Mumbai looking very similar to the Essex-sourced detritus.

Other aspects of translation proved trickier: in the borderland, we had a rusty metal structure, which, in the first part of the play, doubled as a hotel. This was achieved with fabric screens. What we didn’t know was that many Indians would associate the colour we chose with state hospitals. My first job on arrival in Mumbai was to buy new fabric!

The process of remaking the set in India was overseen by Dhanendra Kawade, who, like many Indian theatre practitioners, is a polymath, frequently appearing onstage as well as behind it. He started rendering the rust in dark red, but saw my reference photos and was quite surprised. Then he realised: Mumbai is by the sea, and salt water does indeed create a darker brown than the orangey rust I’d found in photos of inland borders.

The only significant design change was the border zone. In the UK this was wood. In India, to aid transport, it was carpet. As well as being transportable, this gave us more flexibility when adapting to different-sized spaces. The only downside came at one venue where the air conditioner betrayed its lack of solidity.

We also worked to translate the lighting. The original design, by Cis O’Boyle, was very minimal and conceptual. There was a clear directionality that helped create a divide across the border, there was no front light, nor any colour. It was an extremely effective design, which, by its use of darkness, left some things unknowable; key to enabling the magic realism of the play’s final section. In India this was translated by Hidayat Sami, with Yael Crishna relighting one leg of the tour. Rather than do a lighting plan, Cis gave Hidayat a kind of conceptual guide. This worked brilliantly; he adapted her ideas for very different venues yet, as a designer in his own right, was liberated to respond to the adaptations Chris and I were making.

A similar process was used for the sound, with music by Ansuman Biswas and additional sound design by Marcus Christenen being reconfigured by Gautam Danhu, so that the elements and concepts could work with very different acoustics and speaker configurations.

Our first venue, Prithvi Theatre, near Juhu Beach in Mumbai, is a beautifully welcoming space with a thrust stage and curved back wall. It’s renowned as a new writing venue and its audiences are open-minded and enthusiastic. Our performances were part of a festival, which also upped the general feeling of welcome. It’s fair to say it was a great success.

My main concern was always the later venues. The second theatre, at Cochin, and our third, Epicenter in Gurgaon (an offshoot of New Delhi), were both much larger proscenium spaces with a significant distance between stage and audience; very different from the Mercury studio, or our first Indian venue, Prithvi. To ameliorate this, I made scenic areas less defined, so on larger stages they hinted at continuation into the surrounding space.

But, in the end, our greatest challenge was height. At Cochin the problem was chiefly one of safety. Grid access was hair-raising. Epicentre, however, presented us with an even higher grid and no access. One bar was lowerable. Nothing else, including the venue’s lights, could be adjusted. We suspended mics and flying lines for the rubbish off the one bar and installed our own ground-based lighting rig. The rumour behind the limited grid access is that the local hire company gives the theatre technicians a cut for the added trade.

Going to Cochin involved flying all the way to Southern India for just one performance. But before we got there, I had my first big surprise. The set, including a collapsible box steel structure and a seven metre stretch of heavily textured carpet, was coming with us on the plane. I haven’t yet mentioned Rajit Kapur. Like Shernaz he is both one of the key members of Rage and a famous face. He was also our fixer and negotiator, with an endless supply of exotic (to us Brits) sweets and a very useful ability to get things done. It had been decided that it was cheaper to take the set on the plane and pay the excess than to hire a van. Somehow, Rajit managed to check in two bundles of steel box section lengths, a huge roll of carpet, several cardboard boxes of rubbish, props, costumes and all our personal luggage.

At all three venues, the fit-ups started at night after a previous show had got out. Our Indian production manager Ayaz Ansari – always in flip-flops and seemingly laid back, yet quietly achieving small miracles – along with the stage crew, would put up the set and work with me to adapt it to the space. Jenna Prince, our equally unflappable stage manager, would set up backstage and make sure any potential issues with the dressing rooms or tech desk were discovered early. Then we could go to the hotel knowing exactly what faced us the following day. We’d rig and focus in the morning, then work with the cast on any changes in the afternoon before doing either one or two performances.

The whole thing happened at incredible speed; not having time to get to know people and places was sometimes frustrating. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable experience for all of us who went out from the UK. It’s a cliché to say that in India lack of resources and of infrastructure are balanced by a great “can do” approach, but it’s absolutely true of the theatre-makers with whom we worked. They were also kind and generous hosts, with whom we had a great deal in common, sharing many values as artists, despite operating in very different circumstances.

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