Piya Behrupiya does what the best adaptations do: it turns the original into a canvas on which to make something vibrantly new, and simultaneously makes conversation with the original. Piya Behrupiya is a particularly skillful, sparkling conversation. In their adaptation of Twelfth Night, the Company Theatre of Mumbai plays with Shakespeare like a loved and versatile toy, addressing the author by turns as an old favorite, a popular celebrity and an irritating competitor. The end result is hilarious, exuberant and, in my case, somewhat inaccessible. As a non-Hindi speaker, I couldn’t follow the intricacies of the rhyming wordplay, cultural references and jokes that by the second act had the Hindi-speaking audience helpless with laughter. A fellow audience-member near me who kindly supplemented the surtitles often turned, laughing, to say she couldn’t translate—but that it was funny. Although the actors make sure that the show is enjoyable regardless of language, for me, missing the joke was part of the fun, because it highlighted the production’s brilliant riffs on the very ideas of adaptation and translation.
The most explicit comment on the play’s status as an adaptation is embodied by Sebastian (Puranjeet Dasgupta, charismatic and witty in the double parts of Sebastian and disgruntled actor-translator). Striding down front to make his first speech, he comments on the character’s shabby treatment by the author, counting his lines in comparison to Sir Toby’s, and summing up his subplot with Antonio in a few one-sided exchanges. His belief that he deserves better grows throughout the play until he eventually claims to be the one who translated the play into Hindi in the first place. But, he complains, everyone who praises the play attributes his efforts to Shakespeare. In doing so he both acknowledges Shakespeare’s cultural cachet and calls attention to Piya Behrupiya’s innovative flair. His irritation as a translator underscores the production’s achievement, its skillful absorption and redeployment of Twelfth Night’s tale and themes. His comments unsettle the relationship between the performance and the author implied by the gigantic picture of Shakespeare that frames the Chorus. While everyone congratulates Shakespeare, he’s also just a backdrop against which the adaptors play.
It’s hard to overstate just how much fun the production has with adapting Shakespeare. Sometimes the meta-commentary on the play’s status emerges in Shakespearean references, as with the many shout-outs to Romeo and Juliet in the play’s first half. Comparing their lovers to Romeo and Juliet, the characters archly nod to the tragic potential embedded in Illyria’s love stories, even as they highlight their own comic performances. Throughout the play, brilliantly mixed elements of Indian entertainment culture absorb Twelfth Night’s plot points. The fight between Sebastian and Sir Toby and co., for example, becomes a qawwali singing competition, Bollywood-style. At another point, devotional music is repurposed to comic effect for a love song. Due to the limitations of supertitles and my own ignorance, I could only pick up on the most obvious examples. Yet the language barriers among the audience focused attention on the limits of translation while also accentuating the extra-linguistic aspects of the performance, most obviously, music and dance.
Music is integral to Piya Behrupiya, both as a key element in Twelfth Night and of course in the play’s adaptation into a musical comedy. When not required for a scene, the rest of the cast sit behind the musicians, facing the audience, and play the double role of choric commentators and chorus singers. Their participation ties the plot and songs together (especially for audience members who can’t follow the lyrics). Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on” is a clear statement of purpose: love songs make up the core of the music in the play, with each song depicting a different variation of desire. Throughout, the songs distill the emotion of the scene or the characters, sometimes in contrast to the rhyming poetry. In fact the efficacy of poetry is a point of debate in the play, with characters like Orsino trying to write love poems only to meet with Olivia’s exasperation and derision. The songs, however, are presented as a more successful tactic, wooing the audience as well as the onstage beloved.
That’s not to say that poetry is dismissed; the skillful adaptation of poetry and music allows the production to hit its most serious emotional note. Viola (Geetanjali Kulkarni) delivers a portion of the “Patience on a monument” speech as a soliloquy. “She never told her love,” she begins, suggesting an alternate, unhappy ending for her character, and asserting that despite its comedic nature hers is “love indeed.” The mournful, aching solo that follows is a beautiful culmination of the emotions in the speech, and grounds the lightheartedness of the rest of the production. With tones ranging from poignant to raunchy to giddy, Piya Behrupiya never stales—no surfeit here—but exudes confidence from first to last.
Katie Blankenau is a doctoral student in English literature at Northwestern University. She specializes in early modern drama and theater history, with a particular interest in hospitality and privacy on the early modern stage. She received her MA from Southern Methodist University, her BA in English and a BS in journalism from the University of Kansas.