On 29 January 2003, the Royal Shakespeare Company's long-planned adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight's Children receives its world premiere, performed by a 20-strong British-Asian cast, at London's Barbican Centre.
Published in 1981, Rushdie's second novel is a complex allegory combining three main tales: the turbulent history of 20th-century India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; the saga of a Muslim family; and the story of one man, Saleem Sinai, whose telepathic powers allow him to communicate with other children born at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947.
The book, which was awarded the "Booker of Bookers" in 1993, firmly established Rushdie's reputation as one of Britain's leading contemporary authors. His other novels have included Shame, The Moor's Last Sigh, East/West, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and, most infamously, 1989's The Satanic Verses that so angered Muslims that Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini declared a "fatwah" against Rushdie.
Rushdie, adaptor and director Tim Supple and adaptor and dramaturg Simon Reade first began work on the stage version of Midnight's Children in July 2001. Drawing on a screenplay version of the novel, which Rushdie had prepared in the mid-1990s for the BBC (it was never produced), Reade and Supple superimposed their dramatisations of discrete scenes within the book. Together, the three men then shaped and refined the script, and Rushdie embellished specific scenes. Within six months, they had a working draft of the script, which then underwent further refinement through a series of read-throughs, workshops and rehearsals.
Leslie Stainton spoke to Supple and Reade about working with Salman Rushdie and the process of adapting his epic novel for the theatre.
TIM SUPPLE - ON WORKING WITH RUSHDIE:
"The essence of Salman as a writer to me is what you experience when you go to somewhere like Bombay. His writing is so much a product of a panorama, a mosaic, a chaos of inputs which are Indian: mystical, lyrical, poetic, vulgar, cheap, playful, witty, crude.
"On the streets of Bombay you're bombarded by all these things - trashy, tear-away, rip-away, irreverent - you've got all of that. And on the other side you've got a very sophisticated literary tradition, which is partly Indian and partly Western, modernist and adventurous and Joycean and so on. You've got to be alive to all of that.
"You have to embrace film somewhere in the consciousness of any way of representing Salman, because film is such an important part of how he writes. He just uses everything. As a writer, he's so fantastically fertile in the way he absorbs the possibilities of the world around him."
TIM SUPPLE - ON ADAPTING THE NOVEL:
"What's difficult is finding a theatrical language that matches the book, because you can't put the book's language onto the stage, because it's not theatrical, it's a book. So you have to make the theatre in the same language as the book. We haven't tried to make it a literal, realistic, epic. The script is intentionally not heavily verbal, it doesn't rely on big slabs of the language from the book.
"Salman's essential dramatic idea was to have Saleem in the present tense of the story, in the Pickle Factory, as a spine going all the way through it, telling his life story to Padma. And what happens behind that, or through the doorway of that, is the story unfurled, with other characters taking life, and then Saleem eventually stepping into his own story. So you've got this life story being dramatized onstage, but one step behind that - a third layer - you've got the story of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the historical epic of 1915 to 1978. We're using a large film screen as part of that.
"So on the one side, as a piece of theatre, the production relies on a cinematic language-short scenes, short speeches, sharp, quick edits moving from one thing to another, and a soundtrack, music and songs and sounds that take you from place to place and era to era. On the other side, you have this highly theatrical, storytelling language, very simple ways of using one bed and a chair and a carpet, and then changing those."
SIMON READE - ON THE STORY'S HISTORICAL INACCURACY:
"Saleem says at certain points that he describes something as fact, and then says, 'It was fact, but I made it up.' That's lovely, that kind of slippery authority of the narrator. It means that he can play around with history, and then of course make the very significant point that we all play around with history.
"We use it for our own propaganda and political ends. And we use it to edit our own autobiography, to peddle our own personal myths, to hype ourselves, to puff up our self-esteem. There is no such thing as objective fact. You can tell greater truths through fiction."
SIMON READE - ON THE BEAUTY OF THE WORK:
"I know some people think they might be overawed at the very idea of reading the book, because they think it's going to be this great literary work. But suddenly you read the opening three pages, and it's amazing. It's prose poetry, basically. Those first three pages make me cry every time I read them, just because of the splendour of them.
"But the more you get into the book, the more you realise Rushdie is working in a great populist tradition. He's talking about filmmaking on the one hand - Bollywood. He uses a kind of free argot on the other - the language of the street and of messy, colonial India. He's quite cheeky. It isn't all highfalutin, it isn't the stuff of the academy, even though it gets studied at universities. It's actually incredibly playful and fantastically fun.
"In a way, the beauty of the book - which is what we'll be aspiring to onstage - is that it's a very simple, family saga. It's a kind of soap-opera story of this family whose life happens to coincide with big events in the history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 20th century. But if you know nothing about that history, you will learn bits about the history as you experience it.
"It's like everything else. You can go to Hamlet and know the play intimately, and all the arguments about which bits should be cut, and absolutely adore it (so long as the production's intelligent and dazzling). Or you can go to Hamlet never having read or seen it, and you will still absolutely adore it but for totally different reasons. So ignorance of the politics or the history, in the case of Midnight's Children, does not matter, because its references are worn on its sleeve. It explains what's going on."
Midnight's Children opens at the Barbican Theatre on 29 January 2003 (previews from 18 January) and continues to 23 February 2003, before transferring to Michigan and New York. For further information on the production history, visit the RSC website.