Barbican, under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company program of New Writing
The RSC is forging new alliances with various entities, now that they have abandoned their long-lived winter season in London at this theatre. This dramatization of Rushdie’s novel is presented by the RSC in association with Columbia University and the University Musical Society, and the University of Michigan. They are not off to a good start. This dramatization has been puffed and huzzahed aplenty, but it is nothing less than a colossal bore, nearly innocent of ideas. As the well-known American expatriate is quoted as saying, there is no “there” there.
I have not read the novel, and may never read it after this. The play purports to be the epic story of a child who was born on the stroke of midnight, 14/15 August 1947 and who is deliberately exchanged for another baby born at the same moment. A double-page, four course timeline in the program connects this event and other events in the story with the larger-scale history of India and Pakistan, from circa 2500 BC to 14/15 August 1978 CE, on which date the child, Saleem Sinai, now married and a father, disappears into the Bombay crowd on his thirty-second birthday. One senses Rushdie’s ironic, anti-epic sensibilities in all of this, and it may be that those familiar with the novel may be able to project their appreciation of Rushdie’s iconoclastic art onto the stage action and find an interest in it that others like me don’t develop. There are a lot of people on stage, and the story goes on at a good pace, in little “clips” of scenes, bolstered by large-scale projections of filmed action in the wider world on the back scrim. But it has a mere “and then… and then” sort of quality, this tale told retrospectively by Saleem himself (told as he writes it, so that he seems to be a stand-in for the author), and it does go on and on. We were a full hour-and-a-half into the performance before the point was made that all the people born on the stroke of midnight of the fateful hour of India’s independence are Midnight’s Children. We might have figured this out for ourselves, had we not been so preoccupied trying to find some idea or other, some shred of meaning lurking in the shadows of this shambles of a play.
Finally, I lost my patience with it all and left at the interval. I almost never do that, especially in London, but I had the distinct feeling of having my time wasted, and I looked at my watch at least three times during the first act. Somehow I had had a tiny inkling, when I was buying the ticket back before Christmas, that this was chancy. Unfortunate, that I didn’t listen to that little voice.