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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Midnight's Children
Barbican Theatre       January-March 2003

This adaptation of Salman Rushdie's novel (by Rushdie, director Tim Supple and Simon Reade) is one of the Royal Shakespeare Company's most ambitious projects in years, which makes it all the more regrettable that it comes a cropper in virtually every possible way, doing no justice to the original while almost never achieving any theatrical life.

Rushdie's conceit is that children born in the first hour of Indian independence in 1947 shared a mystical bond and superhuman powers, and that the fictional story of one of them could encapsulate the intertwined histories of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

His hero Saleem begins by narrating a family history that goes back two generations, with one of the more entertaining sequences in the dramatisation being the comic soap opera of his grandparents and parents, right up to a Prince-and-Pauper-type baby switch that makes him not himself, but somebody else.

(In inevitable Blood Brothers fashion, he and the other baby - a kind of evil twin - will find their lives crossing repeatedly through the story.)

But that is about the last point at which the story has any interest or, indeed, coherence. As the young Saleem grows up, and family events send him back and forth between India and Pakistan, Rushdie's attempts to make his adventures reflect larger political and social forces just don't work.

It becomes too-obviously strained coincidence that he repeatedly happens to be in the wrong place as one war or another breaks out.

Meanwhile, Saleem's mystical connection to the other Midnight's Children (generally represented in film projections) is a subplot that goes nowhere, and the family soap opera gets ever more tangled.

By the time people start dying (somewhere around the two-hour point in this over-three-hour play), you not only can't be sure who they are, but you really don't care.

And then things only get worse, as Rushdie's narrative gets simultaneously more hurried, racing through historical references, more mystical, trying to do something with Saleem's visions, and more cluttered, as the family story becomes totally incomprehensible.

At the interval, a friend commented that it wasn't actually bad, but just wasn't any good. By the end it had gone irredeemably bad, failing as metaphor, as theatrical experience and as simple storytelling.

As Saleem, Zubin Varla is onstage almost uninterruptedly, alternately narrating and acting out his adventure, and he does yeoman labour trying to hold the whole thing together.

But with a cast of about 20 playing over 100 characters, with film projections (ranging from newsreels to mystical visions) whose clumsiness would embarrass an art school undergraduate, and with director Supple unable to make much beyond the simple opening scenes come alive, the whole thing just sinks ever further into its own murkiness.

Midnight's Children was underwritten in part by two American universities (along with the RSC's usual sponsors), and will play brief New York and Michigan seasons after London. The Americans will see the size of production of which the RSC is capable, but regrettably not the quality.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Midnight's Children - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2003

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