I don't do theatre that is self-indulgent," says Aamir Raza Husain at the outset. "I am not one of those who will say, 'Let me do a Hamlet as I love his soliloquies.' If you like the soliloquies so much, perform them in the loo. Don't inflict them on others."
Husain's style of theatre is more audience-led and has more to do with exceptional acting, authenticity, a strong cast and beautiful sets. Husain's group, Stagedoor Productions, has performed nearly 150 productions and over 5,000 shows since it came together in late 1974, some of these being Mousetrap, The Fifty Day War and The Legend of Ram. The last one was the first production in the world to be held in a mobile auditorium, revolving on tracks to cover a distance of one kilometre, as the action shifted from Ayodhya to Lanka. And now, he is all set to bring his latest theatrical offering, The Lion in Winter, to Delhi.
So, does this play match the scale of his earlier ones? "I get tired when I think of the scale of The Fifty Day War or The Legend of Ram, which were held on eight to 10 acres of land. The Lion in Winter, on the other hand, is taking place in a proscenium," says Husain.
However, whether it is an indoor play or an outdoor one, he ensures that all his productions stay true to the period they are depicting, be it in costume or dialogues.
For instance, The Lion in Winter deals with one evening in the life of Henry II, while he is at his winter estate in Chignon. To give the audience a feel of the actual setting, Husain has recreated Henry II's chamber as it existed in Kent, England. "Besides having James Goldman's original script (1966) for reference, I also discovered three fat books on Amazon about Henry II. Those helped me get a flavour of that era," he says.
Husain first directed The Lion in Winter 32 years ago, but back then the disposition of the audience was very different from the present one. "Today, people under 40 years of age are in a bit of a hurry. They don't have time to go through a process," he says. And hence, when he takes up a wordy play, he gets into a bit of a tight spot. "I need people to swirl the words around and enjoy them," he says. Sometimes he needs to rewrite bits of a play to make sure the audience's attention doesn't wander.
In The Lion in Winter, he has rewritten a lot of Act 2 in a bid to make it more palatable.
But, where does one stop while taking creative liberties with a plot or story when dealing with historical characters? "You can take creative licence only when you have creativity in you. When mediocrity takes on the garb of creative licence, it kills everything: the story, the audience, the sponsors," says Husain. He remembers reading a book on Nur Jahan, which showed the Mughals eating south Indian food. "You can tweak characters, enhance their goodness or suppress a little but you can't change history. That's a huge problem with Indian writing these days," says Husain.
His voice takes on a scathing undertone as he recalls having watched an unfortunate productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which the cast was dressed in Rajasthani costumes, and Romeo and Juliet, where the actors in sherwanis were distributing local sweets boxes. It is to avoid such irrelevant experimentation that he steers clear of Hindi adaptations of British or American plays. "Little does the audience realise that British monarchs at the time of Henry II spoke French and Latin. One has to stay true to that in the dialogues," he says.
In present times, doing a historical can be akin to treading on a landmine-infested field. Your depiction of history may not match the popular perception of it, or it may offend the beliefs of some group or community.
"One has to tread carefully in the land that we live in," says Husain, while adding that our concept of history is very hypocritical. "Today one can't write or study history. We have to glean the truth from outside," he says. "And if you do a play that shows characters as they were, you are bound to land in some controversy."
The Lion in Winter will be staged at Kamal Mahal, ITC Maurya, New Delhi, on April 9 at 7 pm