Salman Rushdie, adapted by Salman Rushdie, Simon Reade and Tim Supple
RSC at the Barbican
The decision of the RSC to adapt Midnight's Children for the stage initially seemed to be an act somewhere between brave and foolhardy. This epic of magic realism has been voted as Booker of Bookers, i.e. the greatest novel by a Commonwealth writer in the last forty years. As a result, many people have their own internal relationship with it and unique views of the characters that they would not wish to see damaged.
The novel's strength is as much in the rhythm and orotundity of the writing as in the careful plotting. This inevitably makes it difficult to adapt for a stage production, even of 3¼ hours (including interval).
The trio who have taken on the task have the right credentials and they have sensibly gone for an impressionistic reading. This is reminiscent of the National Theatre's Remembrance of Things Past, flitting across the text, focussing on character and action, sometimes at the expense of language.
The major influence is film of every type from silent movie through Bollywood to a mini-highlight as the war that created Bangladesh is depicted with psychedelia and strobe lighting.
The story of Midnight's Children, those born at the moment of Indian independence in 1947, mirrors the history of their country. They are its hope. Cleverly, Rushdie starts this tale with the grandparents of his main character Saleem (Salman?) played by Zubin Varla, in 1915. It progresses through another generation and forty-two more years before our Muslim hero, his Hindu alter ego, Shiva (Selva Rasalingam) and the nation are born as Nehru declares the country independent.
The bustle of India is well conveyed, Bollywood-style, by a large cast. The confusion of its identity is symbolised by the switching of Saleem and Shiva in the maternity ward by Nurse Mary (Sirine Saba), a Catholic onlooker in a story of religious warring.
From there, it follows the fortunes and wars of India and its children, particularly Saleem whose long-nosed face is a map of his country with a birthmark or blemish that looks like Pakistan. We move through a further thirty-five years through partitions and emigrations, wealth and poverty and death.
Under Tim Supple's direction and back at the RSC's old London home, the Barbican, Midnight's Children is a wonderful spectacle. The large stage space is fully utilised with Saleem acting as passive narrator until his birth, well assisted by his sidekick, Padma (Sameena Zehra), while the world unfolds upstage. Even this is not a large enough canvas for Supple's view and is supplemented by the use of filmed images on a large screen, split symbolically into four uneven parts.
Once Saleem has come into the world, he takes a full part in the action, loving and betraying, fighting and conciliating. He builds to a final battle with Shiva after the dreaded state of emergency under Indira Ghandi that represented the birth of a new generation of hope in a symbolic repetition of his own.
As Saleem, in the only major role, RSC regular Zubin Varla excels. The ensemble acting is generally good and it would be invidious to pick out individuals.
This is a great production, richly symbolic and a wonderful achievement but possibly strives too hard to fit in so much of the novel's plot. It is a complement and compliment to what many regard as a masterpiece of literature but it is no replacement for the incomparable richness of the real thing. Go and see it but read the book too.
Midnight's Children plays until 23rd February.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.