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Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 15:15 GMT
Mixed achievement of Rushdie play
Zubin Varla (Saleem) and the company (photo credit: Manuel Harlan)
Zubin Varla excels in the lead role

The world première of the stage adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children took place in London on Wednesday.

It was always going to be a huge job to adapt Midnight's Children, the 1980 Booker Prize winner, for the stage.

The magic realist novel established Salman Rushdie firmly in the national consciousness, and became an almost iconic work.

It is a sprawling novel, with an incredible cast of characters echoing the history of India's independence in the complicated life of an Indian family and the narrator, Saleem Sinai, in particular.

Book reading

Rushdie himself, together with writer-dramaturg Simon Reade and theatre director Tim Supple, undertook the adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Saleem finds comfort (Photo credit: Manuel Harlan)
The play is three and a half hours long
Involving the author in the adaptation was inevitable - how else was the giant book to be broken down into its key scenes, and still maintain a familiar narrative.

But the risk was that the staging would stick too closely to the text, making the audience feel they are present at a dramatised book reading.

This is in fact how the play begins, as Rushdie chooses to keep his narrator and protagonist Saleem as narrator of the proceedings, using plenty of the book's best lines.

Saleem is on stage throughout, either narrating the play to the audience and his lover Padma, or - to better effect - dipping in and out of the action to play himself.

Luckily Zubin Varla, who plays Saleem, does a remarkable job, and is the making of the play.

Video screens

He not only brings the self-obsessed and ugly, snot-ridden Saleem to believable life, but engages fully with the audience's sympathies.

His physical acting is effortless, taking Saleem from a hunched 31-year-old back to childhood, through adolesence back to flawed adulthood.

The play is unsatisfactorily staccato at first, as it rushes us through short scenes from Indian and Saleem's history.

But as the family grows, the play develops its own heartbeat, growing organically in momentum as it speeds towards Saleem's birth.

The second half is less successful. Throughout, Rushdie employs enormous video screens behind the action to help tell the multiple narrative, often to creative effect.

But the play loses its way in attempting to portray Saleem's days as an army sniffer dog in the Bangladesh war of 1970-1 - especially in an over-indulgent scene where his corps are tricked into thinking they are having sex with beautiful women.

Brave project

At three and a half hours, the play feels too long, although this is surely the shortest any faithful adaptation of this book could be.

One has a suspicion that without Rushdie's involvement, the writers could have been bolder and created a snappier, shorter and less indulgent version.

Those who know the book will feel that the stage adaptation lacks its verve and energy, while those who have not read it will emerge a little confused.

But overall this is a brave project to bring an intelligent and still provocative story to the London stage.

Midnight's Children is on at the Barbican in London until 23 February, then tours Michigan, New York, and around the UK.

See also:

17 Jan 03 | Entertainment
03 Oct 02 | Entertainment
25 Mar 02 | Entertainment
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