Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Play)

BAn interview with Salman Rushdie by Davia Nelson

Some artists are blessed with outrageous humor. Some artists are blessed with wonderful imagination. Some have extraordinary intelligence. Some have raw emotional power. And some seek in their work a kind of spiritual understanding of how the world works. It is extremely rare that those qualities are combined in one person.” So spoke Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone as he introduced the novelist Salman Rushdie to the audience of a special Berkeley Rep event in November.

While Rushdie is indeed a consummate literary man of our time, his own much-publicized tribulations seem even more theatrical than the sprawling, lexicon-bending novels he’s written (The Satanic Verses, Fury and The Ground Beneath Her Feet). It would seem farfetched, for instance, to attempt a staging of his Booker Prize—stamped Midnight’s Children.

Nevertheless, the Royal Shakespeare Company recently premiered a new stage version of Midnight’s Children at the Barbican Theatre in London. Adapted by British director Tim Supple and former RSC dramaturg Simon Reade, the production, featuring an ensemble of 20 British-Asian actors, crosses the Atlantic this month for visits in Ann Arbor, Mich., and at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in New York City. And Berkeley recently presented the first professional American production of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, directed by Dominique Serrand of Minneapolis’s Theatre de Jeune Lune. Serrand’s spectacular production substantially altered the National Theatre of London’s original version, adapted by Supple and David Tushingham, which was produced at Children’s Theatre of Western Springs in Illinois in 2000 and Georgia’s University Theatre in 2001.

Both Haroun (published as a novel in 1990) and Midnight’s Children (1981) unfold as coming-of-age fables that put the adventures of young people center stage. Haroun is the son of a storyteller—“the Ocean of Notions, the famous Shah of Blah”—who’s lost the gift of gab, and the young boy gets involved in an epic battle to save the Sea of Stories, the source of every story ever told, from the dark forces of Khattam-Shud, the master of silence. More historically grounded than Haroun, Midnight’s Children plays out as a complexly layered allegory of modern India, full of showbiz fireworks and surrealist moments, that intertwines the stories of the children born in Bombay on the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947 (the date of India’s independence from Britian).

So if texts as dense as these should make any would-be adapter blanch, the thematic chord Rushdie strikes—in Haroun, in Midnight’s Children and in the following interview—is the backbone of the theatre: Stories are our lifeblood; imagination matters.

DAVIA NELSON: Berkeley Rep’s not the only place to have taken Haroun and done a stage work with it.

SALMAN RUSHDIE:  Well, it’s amazing. Haroun seems to have made a lot of people want to do things with it. The original dramatization was done at the National Theatre in London just about four years ago. There’s been a production of it in France, in French. There was one in Swedish. There was, in Germany, a puppet version of it. There’s a project from the New York City Opera to make an opera of it with a brilliant libretto by the poet James Fenton. There has been for five years a very skillful project of not making a movie of it.

How involved are you with those adaptations?

With Haroun in London, I wasn’t actually involved with the adaptation because the director and his collaborator—Tim Supple and David Tushingham—created the adaptation. But they were so ridiculously faithful to the novel that I don’t think there was a single sentence in there that I didn’t write. So I sort of did write it. Except that I didn’t. It felt like getting a play for free—without actually doing the work. And it was wonderful. Here in Berkeley, the literary manager/dramaturg Luan Schooler and the director Dominique Serrand have taken that adaptation and fiddled with it some more—putting things in and taking things out and making it their own. I’ve consulted in both cases. I would be sent drafts and asked what I thought, and I would say what I thought, but really it’s their work with my heckling from the sidelines. They’ve brought in more material from the novel to emphasize, what should one say, the darkness under the lightness. I rather like the direction they’ve taken it…

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Poster design by by Michael Mayhew with illustration by Brian Grimwood

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