An interview with Tarek Iskander


11th December 2008

Venetia Ansell

Tarek Iskander, a young London-based theatre director, chose Macbeth for his first play.  After directing a play many directors reserve for the twilight years of their career, it was perhaps only natural to take on something even more challenging: staging a Sanskrit drama in England.  And the best known Sanskrit drama to boot, Shakuntala, the Oedipus Tyrannus of Indian theatre – minus the patricide and incest.  Or indeed any source of conflict and horror.  And worst of all, for gore-loving Western audiences, it has a happy ending.  A discussion with Tarek…

…on why he’s directing Shakuntala

I knew very little about Kalidasa or Shakuntala until a friend gave me a translation and told me to read it.  I read the first scene, the king in his chariot riding into the forest, and was completely thrilled.  Other things came up and I didn’t read any further but this scene haunted me.  When I finally came round to reading the whole thing I fell in love with it.  It’s an incredible piece of literature and would be, I thought, wonderful to perform.

I can, though, see why people don’t normally touch this.  It’s incredibly difficult to do. 

 …on his adaptation

The translation that I had been given was Will Johnson’s [Oxford World Classics 2001].  Had I read any other translation – I’ve read several others since then – I would never have considered doing this. Will Johnson says he wanted to write a performable translation, and this is exactly what he has done.  Performable but not performing.  In order to present it, I really felt I needed to make this my own, to give my own interpretation,. His translation is probably the most free and that gives you the freedom to experiment further.  I would say that this play is very much based upon his translation but it’s still a new adaptation. We worked for a long time, over several months, just to get the adaptation right, testing it with actors in performance at various points.  At one stage we set aside the translation for a considerable period of time but when we came back to it, it was refreshing to see just how closely we were still keeping to the spirit and structure of the original.

I didn’t want to recreate an original form of production.  It’s interesting in a purely academic way but when it flops it can be awful. Our traditions and conventions are different. If we tried to recreate the original music and dance, it would, frankly, just be embarrassing for everyone -performers and audience – although we do have one dance scene representing the battle with the demons  

…on what he changed

We’ve reduced 50 characters to 18 – and the cast is only 10 strong.  I’ve cut it from an impractical four odd hours to about two.  The mythological references have been simplified – not in a patronising way, but simply because a modern Western audience don’t have the same cultural reference points.  We also broke the rules by writing in and staging the curse scene (in Sanskrit drama such things are meant to happen offstage) because it’s so important for the play as a whole and I wanted the audience to understand its significance.

There has been a great deal of additional edits: sections of dialogue have been competely rearranged, new dialogue inserted and so on. But this has all been done from a starting point of huge respect for the translation and original text.  These were changes I felt necessary for staging the production in a way that would make our audience appreciate what is at the heart of this piece.

 …on the peculiar problems of Sanskrit drama

Will Johnson’s idea that there is little or no emotional ambiguity in these plays is very true, and this can present problems.  However, we didn’t introduce ambiguity to address this so much as conflict.  For example, when Shakuntala is leaving the forest, we’ve made her desire to get to her husband more urgent and so brought out the clash between this and her sadness at leaving her father. 

And of course the happy ending.  People here aren’t big fans of happy endings, they’re not taken seriously – even Shakespearean drama that ends happily isn’t rated.  Perhaps it’s the influence of Greek tragedy.  We’ve certainly decided to keep the happy ending, but our last scene does draw more on the Mahabharata version to make Shakuntala less accepting of Dushyanta’s memory loss when they are first reunited.

The rasa element makes Sanskrit drama very distinctive, but it’s not necessarily problematic.  Will Johnson calls such plays a knot of energy and I think this is a great description of what it is like working with these great texts.  They’re so strong that they’d probably survive even a really weak adaptation

You’re right that a beautifully constructed Sanskrit play has a certain sheen to it, but for an audience who have grown up with Shakespearean imagery and language this is not so difficult to digest. In fact, this tradition may make an English audience particularly primed to appreciate Kalidasa’s poetry.

…on the audience

There are two types of directors, those who work out who their intended audience is and then specifically tailor the play to them, and others who think more abstractly and try to make something work for anyone who walks through the door.  I belong to the latter category.

In London in 2008 Kalidasa is completely forgotten.  In fact most people are wholly oblivious to Sanskrit literature full stop, except perhaps for the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita.  Shakuntala is hardly ever performed here, – I have been unable to find any professional English performance in the last 30 years – so I suspect those few who do know and love it may well come to ours.  I’m scared of them. I read one scathing response to a production in the USA which asked why directors felt the need to distort cherished traditions and literature.  So I think they may be disappointed by my play too.  But it’s their love which is ossifying it.

Tarek’s production The Recognition of Shakuntala will be on for three weeks at the Union Theatre in Waterloo, London, between the 20th January and the 2nd February 2009.   The image above shows the cast rehearsing.


1 Response to “An interview with Tarek Iskander”

  1. 1 Eric von Dorster June 22, 2009 at 1:24 am


    I would love to get a copy of Mr. Iskander’s script. I have worked on the play for some time and am interested in seeing what he has done to simplify and shorten the original. Can he be contacted?


    Eric von Dorster

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