Midnight's Children, the 450 page+ epic novel by Salman Rushdie which won the Booker of Bookers, has resisted several efforts to be staged or screened. Last night, it finally made it and opened at the Barbican Theatre. Laura North finds out from Zubin Varla, who plays the lead role, why this one works when others have failed.
"The book is a literary event", says Zubin Varla, who plays the central role of Saleem Sinai. This is not an overestimation. The novel by Salman Rushdie won the Booker prize in 1981 and then went on to win the Booker of Bookers (the best book to be awarded the Booker in the first 25 years). Within its pages, it contains Indian history from 1915 up until the mid-eighties. And, as its author admits: "It's a gigantic novel, a quarter of a million words or something". Zubin Varla is entirely justified to feel nervous, considering he is the lynchpin of such a major production. "I would be a fool if I didn't feel it was certainly a little bit daunting." During rehearsals, the material still left him trembling: "It is an extraordinary and amazing story and I still read part of it and go, oohhh how are we going to do this? I'm still wrestling with bits going, oh god, this will have to be so choreographed, or symbolic, or something." But the good news is that he views this challenge constructively: "It's intimidating, but only in a good way. The dauntingness of it is inspiring: it's what gets you enthused and turns you into a raging warrior who's 25 minutes over lunchtime and late for interviews…"
"I would be a fool if I didn't feel it was certainly a little bit daunting"
So how has this sprawling masterpiece, with "so many stories to tell, too many", been transformed from literary event into theatrical event? The dramatic "spine" for the play was distilled from the novel: Saleem, the omniscient narrator, tells the story to the audience. Fortunately, the task for the adaptors – Rushdie, Tim Supple and Simon Reade – was eased by the existence of Rushdie's BBC screenplay written in the mid-nineties (which never reached the screen): "It showed the novel had dramatic potential: here was a story that could be told theatrically," says Simon Reade. Saleem is a writer, desperate to tell his life story, before he crumbles into "(approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious, dust." His story is an impressive one: born on the stroke of midnight on August 15 1947, the precise moment of India's independence, Saleem possesses the magical power of telepathy and a crippling belief that he is responsible for the fate of India. "It's quite a Brechtian conceit," says Varla. "You have this constant presence of the narrator: it works brilliantly theatrically."
Over the moon: Zubin Varla
During rehearsals, Saleem the narrator partly developed into Saleem the director. "It started becoming like that. He grabs bits of set: he can pull off a chair, or tell someone to get off when it's time for them to get off. The narrator becomes free to stand amid his creation, as they're playing his scene, as he's telling his story." Saleem is the architect of the stories in the novel; on stage he controls what is presented to the audience. "At moments of high drama, the narrator-director-storyteller goes, okay I want to throw in something humorous here, I want to lighten the atmosphere, so he tells you a story that's a bit lighter. He is crafting it as he goes along." Saleem is the main character in his own story, so Varla has to play him at all stages of his life. Here the book became a literal god-send: "I've got this bible. I have the greatest wealth of reference to a character you could ever wish for. You have physical descriptions of them, so I know what Saleem looks like, I know what he's like as a child." Saleem enters the action as a nine-year-old. "It's that dangerous thing, isn't it, of adults playing kids." The vision of him jumping around playing with lego springs to mind; Varla says he concentrates on Saleem's characteristics as a nine-year-old – "he's a loner, he's worried about his nose" – to avoid presenting a stereotypical image. However, Varla's alternative representation of a nine-year-old would probably be censored from the Barbican stage: "I just think he should be sitting in a corner masturbating furiously."
"Behind those glasses and that beard, were the sharpest, most childish eyes – bright and funny and mischievous"
There is a lot going on in Midnight's Children, and the only way to stage it is by leaving things out. "You cannot have a four hour piece of theatre, it has to be about three hours long: things have had to be stripped from it." It would not be surprising if Rushdie felt protective of his text, knowing that it would be sliced and reconfigured in order to work on stage. Indeed, Simon Reade revealed a minor creative wobble. On remarking that perhaps three hours was still too long, he was met with: "Long? Any shorter and it will cease to be Midnight's Children." But on the whole, Rushdie has been receptive to change. "From what I've heard, Rushdie's been very, very open to what people have said about it", says Varla. The novelist has worked on adaptations before but he has not yet written an original play (apparently, working on this production has been such fun that's he's now thinking of doing just that). "I think he knows that he has to take advice from people who know more than he does about the theatrical event, and how it has to work theatrically."
Salman Rushdie tells tales
The staging has been stripped down, leaving the complex story free from the clutter of sets or special effects. A big cinema screen shows footage of the actors and pivotal events, such as President Jawaharlal Nehru making his famous Tryst With Destiny speech: "The film element lends a lot to the colour and vivacity and charge." Besides this, there is virtually no set. "The set, from what I know of it, is an enormous empty stage, a bare acting space. You couldn't tell the story in any other way because it chops and changes and moves between these things so rapidly. You couldn't have sets." This is Varla's own preference for theatre. He recalls his favourite version of a Shakespeare play; a video of Richard Burton playing Hamlet at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre off Broadway, directed by John Gielgud. Cameras at the back of the theatre captured the actors in rehearsal clothes; there was "not much of anything else – a bare stage, a chair if you need it. Give me a bare empty stage, I don't care if anybody's got costume. It works brilliantly and that's how Midnight's Children will work, at best."
Although the play is leaner and meaner, "the essential drive of the novel remains intact" as does Rushdie's wit and fun. The writer has acquired a reputation for literary seriousness, especially after the political furore concerning the Satanic Verses. However, Tim Supple, director, argues that Rushdie is "fundamentally a showman, who writes mischievously. This has to lead the identity of the production." Varla is also keen to dispel any idea that Rushdie's writing may be inaccessible. "Without a doubt you are talking about an intellectual if you want to put it like that. But 'intellectual' has all those connotations of somebody who is disconnected from soul or heart which he certainly he is not, so intellectual would be the wrong description of him." The first thing that struck him about Rushdie was his sense of fun. "When he started talking, when he was animated, behind those glasses and that beard, were the sharpest, most childish eyes I could have ever wished to see. His eyes were like a five-year-old's, bright and funny and mischievous. And that's what in the writing, a great deal of mischievous and naughtiness and pushing the boundaries."
"It is an extraordinary and amazing story and I still read part of it and go, oohhh how are we going to do this?"
Does Midnight's Children signal a new direction for the RSC? It is the company's first production at the Barbican since it ceased using it as its London residence last year. The ensuing period has been full of change, ushering in a new artistic director designate, Michael Boyd, and visits to several venues including the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Gielgud. Varla is hesitant to say it marks a new direction. "It's a brave thing to be doing, and a very good adaptation. But in that sense they may have chosen to do it at any time." He is an old-hand at the RSC, with plenty of experience in the company's pre-nomadic days. He played the lead role in Romeo And Juliet (the coincidence of seeing an R & J delivery van on his way to the audition still stays with him), Caliban in The Tempest and had an amazing time in Faust, the six and a half hour epic where he played spirits of Mephistopheles and threw himself into trapeze work. Midnight's Children is significant, he believes, for what it expresses. "To me the important thing is to rediscover, to a certain degree, that theatre is one of the most fantastic forums for story telling and for inspiration."
A film version of Midnight's Children is possibly on the cards too, even after the abortive attempts to screen it before. Simon Reade says, "I hope that this will wake people up to the fact that it can be done." Varla, who has recently appeared in a screen version of Twelfth Night also directed by Tim Supple, say film "is something I'd like to do more of it". He would certainly consider starring in a film version of Midnight's Children. Salman Rushdie himself has voiced an interest in taking a part. Varla is surprised and laughs. Rushdie, however, is fast becoming a bit of a cameo-king. Proving that Rushdie has a sense of fun, the "literary genius" cropped up in Bridget Jones' Diary only to be asked directions to the toilet.
Varla himself has been moving in brave new directions. His biography for Midnight's Children reveals that he recently took part in a workshop for the potential new musical based around the music of Rod Stewart. The musical would follow the likes of other pop musicals such as We Will Rock You, penned by the same author Ben Elton, Our House and the forthcoming Cliff – The Musical. It's not entirely new ground for Varla, having played Judas in the 1996 rival of Jesus Christ Superstar. Rod Stewart's music was a new experience, however, and Varla discovered that he really enjoys it. The man himself came to see the last day of the workshop and "if he liked it, which he did, then he'll give it his go-ahead and sometime in the future it might happen." Varla points out that participation in the workshop is unrelated to casting for the musical if or when it happens.
For the moment his sights are firmly set on the five-week run at the Barbican. Then Varla will be travelling with Midnight's Children to Michigan. "I've been abroad with other plays in the past and it's always really good fun." Then it's on to the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, which launched the careers of James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald among others, to see how the audience receives it in Rushdie's 'other city', New York.