Mukul Ahmed, Theatre Director
“Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here’s drink. I drink to thee,” Juliet calls out to her beloved, with a red scarf enveloping her body – symbolising the love, the union and the fate that has befallen them. She places the invisible vial to her lips, changing the course of the intricate plans the lovers have made, and – slowly – Juliet lowers her head to the ground. The scarf covers her face as a sad, mournful lament fills the room and her body lies motionless.
This is only the second rehearsal with the cast and musicians in the airless basement of Rich Mix of a new production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Mukul Ahmed. Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I watch him as he sits upon a chair behind a tape line indicating the edge of the stage upstairs, where the play is to be performed this Sunday, 22nd September. The actors run through their lines, occasionally stumbling and needing to look at their script. Mukul knows all the soliloquies by heart and he explains the Shakespearean prose in English the actors can understand. He gently corrects, gets them to enunciate and suggests ways to change their delivery or tone.
There are many ways to describe him at work: as a kindly, calm, concerned teacher – as a hawk, silently following its prey – or as an intense, self-controlled conductor listening with both eyes and ears. His hands and fingers are central to his method: slim and long, they cut into the air like a Kathak dancer performing. When talking, they flutter around, adding volume and enthusiasm to what he is saying. Watching him in action is as captivating as the final death throes of the hapless lovers.
Mukul’s production of Romeo & Juliet reflects his own mixed cultural interests and background – he is from Bangladesh but London has been home for the last two decades. Mukul’s Shakespearean adaptation incorporates “palaghan,” street theatre that can be seen in busy markets in Bangladesh. These performances include music, song, dance, tales about politicians and the government, wry comments about imams and mosques, and plenty of bawdy jokes.
This performance is mostly in English with some Bangla thrown in to the mix. “The music is very important to my production. In Bangladesh, there is so much of it everywhere and I want to share this with a wider audience. I don’t want to call this fusion – fusion is confusion,” he laughs. The East End has become central to who Mukul is now – its mixes, colours and sounds. “I investigate who I am all the time and want to share this with others. I don’t consciously try to bring cultures together, yet that happens anyway. I sow the seeds and then it is the performers, who are from all over the place, who bring themselves to the play. So it is not fusion but simply who I – we – are.
Mukul is taking Romeo & Juliet on tour to India next year and he is also working on a version of Goethe’s epic, Faust, which he is performing in Bangladesh this autumn. “It’s a universal story which is very relevant to that country at this moment. It too is a society that is changing from feudalism to industrialism, and the questions the play asked two hundred years ago are the same ones people there are asking today, about how their society will transform in keeping with these changes.”
“Whilst growing up in Bangladesh, I was always interested in storytelling but I never had the opportunity to see a stage, let alone a play. I did my first degree in Medicine in Bulgaria and was preparing to become a doctor. No one forced me to do so, it was just the classic, middle-class aspirational thing to do. But I remember quite clearly – one brilliant morning in 1993 – I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had moved to London by then and I saw an advert in the local newspaper, the old Half Moon Theatre wanted people to work on a play. I was selected and of course, the production we worked on was Romeo & Juliet. This was exactly twenty years ago and now I find myself doing Romeo & Juliet again, twenty years later. Only this time it is my own production.
My family in Bangladesh did not know what I was doing here, they continued to think I was a doctor. When they found out years later, it came as a total shock to them. Though my parents never accepted it, they never encouraged or discourage me. It was something new to them and they didn’t know anyone in the profession. My father worked as a civil servant all his life and my mother was a housewife. But even here, in the UK, working in theatre is not considered to be a real profession, is it? To tell the truth, I think my parents secretly enjoyed it. But the thing I feel most disappointed by is that they never saw any of my productions before they passed away. I suppose this is what they call fate – the real drama of life.”
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
You may also like to read about