Paul Bhattacharjee: Shakespeare's Indian summer

Paul Bhattacharjee explains why Kerala is the perfect setting for the Bard's Twelfth Night
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The Independent Culture

Paul Bhattacharjee is currently starring in Guantanamo at the New Ambassadors theatre, in the West End, as one of the detainees of the US military, Moazzam Begg. The run overlaps with rehearsals for Twelfth Night, in which Bhattacharjee plays Malvolio. The latter production, with an all-Asian cast, is the directorial debut of the actor and writer Stephen Beresford, who relocates Shakespeare's romantic comedy from the island of Illyria to the state of Kerala, in southern India.

Paul Bhattacharjee is currently starring in Guantanamo at the New Ambassadors theatre, in the West End, as one of the detainees of the US military, Moazzam Begg. The run overlaps with rehearsals for Twelfth Night, in which Bhattacharjee plays Malvolio. The latter production, with an all-Asian cast, is the directorial debut of the actor and writer Stephen Beresford, who relocates Shakespeare's romantic comedy from the island of Illyria to the state of Kerala, in southern India.

"The parts are like chalk and cheese," Bhattacharjee says about his new role. "But there is some strange link, in that Malvolio does go a bit mad in the play and ends up in a cell. He becomes delusional when he fools himself that [his mistress] Olivia loves him, and goes on a strange ego trip."

Battacharjee acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002, in Island Princess, The Malcontent, Edward III and The Roman Actor. Last year, he played Hobson in Hobson's Choice at the Young Vic. He has done plenty of televison work and played the immigration officer Mohammed in Stephen Frears's film Dirty Pretty Things. Battacharjee also helped to set up Tara Arts, Britain's first all-Asian theatre company, in 1979.

But despite living between India and England while growing up, he has little connection with the Bollywood set, unlike the Bollywood actress Neha Dubey, who plays Olivia and was in the film Monsoon Wedding. Other cast members include the 21-year-old Raaghav Chanana, here playing Sebastian, who was discovered at an open audition in Delhi.

Why has Twelfth Night been set in India? "There are a lot of servants in the play, and religion," Bhattacharjee says. "Religion is a daily function in today's India, and the whole structure of society in India - to have servants is normal - permeates everyone's behaviour, so the actual relationships in the play are explained much better if you set this play in India."

But is there any problem with putting Shakespeare's play into a modern Indian context? "There is a strange difficulty in doing it in an Indian way if you employ Indian accents, as we do, especially with verse speaking. The typical Indian intonation is very much with a downward inflection at the end of a line. The last word is very dropped. Obviously, you can't do that in Shakespeare, because the minute you drop the end of a line, the energy goes. This is something we are beginning to learn as we go through the rehearsal process. We have to change the emphasis of the Indian accent slightly in order to accommodate the nature of verse speaking."

The cast have been rehears-ing the moment when Malvolio appears to Olivia, dressed in his yellow stockings. "He thinks he has come to claim his loved one," says Bhattacharjee. "The nice thing for me is that because the play is set in India, I can call on things from my background. Here, I use elements of Indian classical dance to emphasise the new lightness of his heart."

'Twelfth Night', Albery Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6621), from 18 August

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