Elizabethan drag with a South Asian twist

Piya Behrupiya is playing The Cultch's York Theatre.

In Piya Behrupiya, Twelfth Night takes a trip to India.

A loud yes and a quieter no.

In 2012, London’s Globe Theatre commissioned The Company Theatre of Mumbai to produce a desi (Indian or South Asian) version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Piya Behrupiya, which translates as “Lover Impersonator”, is the raucously charming result.

The show has become an international hit and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, the source material is the blueprint for one of the greatest drag acts of all time. In Twelfth Night, Viola is shipwrecked. Thinking that her identical twin brother Sebastian and all of the others have drowned, she lands in Illyria, where she crossdresses for safety, becoming a boy named Cesario. Cesario gets a gig as a page to Count Orsino and presses the Count’s amorous suit to the Countess Olivia—who promptly falls in love with Cesario. But Cesario is pining for Orsino. In terms of gender and sexual orientation, Twelfth Night is a hall of mirrors.

The subplot turns around Olivia’s steward Malvolio, who is so humourless that Olivia’s witty waiting woman Maria decides to humiliate him. Olivia’s drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch, his limply foppish sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the clever clown Feste all collude in Maria’s scheme.

In Piya Behrupiya, we get to see these characters through a fresh lens, the sensibilities of Bollywood—and that perspective brings huge joy. Malvolio isn’t nearly as dour as he usually is, for instance; he’s just kind of a jolly git. And the exuberance of the production is intoxicating. Characters are forever bursting into tunes that have names like “A Song for Lovers in Longing”. And the Bollywood choreography is unabashedly sexual.

Within this style, everybody in the cast is perfect. Playing Viola, Geetanjali Kulkarni makes Cesario a hilariously butch, self-inflated little pigeon. Mansi Multani isn’t afraid to reveal the ridiculousness of Olivia’s romantic and melancholy poses. Aadar Malik’s movement as Andrew Aguecheek is sleekly precise. And Mantra Mugdha brings understated wit to Sebastian, especially as the actor complains that Shakespeare has underwritten his role.

Still, there was only so far that I could go with Piya Behrupiya. I have no doubt that has a lot to do with my limitations: I’m an old white guy steeped in European traditions and I don’t speak Hindi. The show is performed in Hindi, which is great, but the song lyrics aren’t translated and neither is all of the dialogue, so I missed big chunks of content.

Especially in Act 1, I also tired of the relentlessly broad style; director Atul Kumar has built in some serious moments, but much of the subtlety of Twelfth Night gets steamrollered. Although the plot of Twelfth Night collapses into heteronormativity as it rushes to its happy ending, the body of the play luxuriates in the sweet longing that can arise from uncertain gender and orientation. There is a same-sex kiss in Piya Behrupiya but, for the most part, the quieter reaches of transgressive yearning are silenced. Similarly, this production’s deliberately entertaining approach robs Maria’s humiliation of Malvolio or most of its emotional impact.

Within its own style, Piya Behrupiya succeeds marvelously. My question is about how well that style serves the source material. And, of course, there’s another issue at play here, too: Piya Behrupiya doesn’t exclude me or other non-Hindi speakers, but we aren’t its most astute audience either. All sorts of folks in Vancouver will get the Hindi jokes and Bollywood tropes that flew right past me. That’s a good thing. And, if you understand those things, boredom might never hover.

Even though bits of this show left me behind, I am so grateful for the strengths of this production and for the thrill of seeing a non-Eurocentric cultural sensibility on the stage that I exited the York Theatre a happy man.

 

PIYA BEHRUPIYA (TWELFTH NIGHT) Translation by Amitosh Nagpal. Directed by Atul Kumar. Produced by The Company Theatre and presented by The Cultch and Diwali Fest. At the York Theatre on Tuesday, October 11. Continues until October 22.

 

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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