THIS COLUMN should have been written last week when World Theatre Day was being remembered on March 27. But the saddest news came on Tuesday morning when Junoon – the arts platform helmed by Sanjana Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar announced its closure, after celebrating eight years in February," because of financial sustainability issues… with a big salute to the artists across India, who create soul food for us all.”
I got all emotional, as at midnight I shut the last page of Felicity Kendal’s book White Cargo – the richly entertaining and deeply honest memoirs written by her father Geoffrey Kendal’s bedside as he lay in a coma – Geoffrey and his wife Laura Lidell were the parents of Jennifer Kapoor.
There was not a woman who didn’t envy her for marrying Shashi Kapoor. And this union of two great theatre families – Geoffrey Kendal and Prithviraj Kapoor – gave us an equally impassioned Sanjana, who continues the theatre tradition. In 1979, Jennifer gave us Prithvi Theatre in Juhu. I relived their passion for theatre.
In fact, Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Charley’s Aunt, Arms and the Man, et al transported me back to the years when at school and college, I had played bit parts in each of these – never the lead!
GEOFFREY AND LAURA were national treasures. For most of us, the mention of Shakespeareana evoked awe and excitement. But what had me hooked were Felicity’s unusual and irreverent turns of phrase: “took dog Chook for his evening piddle”; and “an entire village of palaces” describing the avenues of white colonial houses that were built when Calcutta was a colonial port.
Her mention of Laura on stage with baby Jennifer in a basket, made me flashback to when I took two-month old Quasar in a carry-cot to the White Cane Ball in Pune which I was compering, then in a sling travelling all over India for my radio programme Glaxo Bonny Baby Time, News at the TV Centre, and the play Death of a Salesman, where I was Linda Loman! Felicity describes her father who would hurl himself at life like a bouncy puppy.
And his ‘keeping fit’ mantra was: do yoga, laugh a lot, and always breathe deeply, and when you have a problem, go for a walk, sing at the top of your bloody lungs. There was an actor in their troupe who she referred to as Poopsie -- Marcus Murch, whom I got to know over the years…But she writes very charmingly about him being a thief. He stole from anyone. He was never caught red-handed and was very adept and cunning.
It may interest some that he was one of 16 children adopted by Miss Murch, who came to India as a young missionary schoolteacher. She was a legend we had all heard about and over the years, I met a number of her adopted children in Student Christian Movement camps I attended. She would stride the hills of Nainital and could not resist an orphan baby.
Marcus had been left on her doorstep in a cardboard box when he was a few weeks old. He grew up to become a well-known stage and film actor. While I never acted opposite him, I did cast him in a bit part in a film, and he was always welcome home! Long before I met Satyadev Dubey and experienced his dispensing of large sets and costumes, Geoffrey dispensed with realistic settings, and used simple backgrounds, with only the barest furniture on stage.
Shakespeare said: when you hear of us talk of horses, imagine that you can see them! Shakepearewallah were popular in every Loreto School in India. And I was a Loreto alumna! And the romance of this touring theatre company came alive everywhere I went – the Gaiety Theatre in Simla, Mount Everest Hotel in Darjeeling, and even Muzaffarnagar (north of Delhi) where they performed Henry V – from which I can still recite excepts as it was my text in Senior Cambridge.
When actors left the ‘firm’, as he called it, edited versions of the shows gave our audiences a ‘taste’ of Shakespeare – when once it had been a banquet. Sanjana and I were in Gaslight, directed by Geoffrey Kendal and travelled to Calcutta. While we all stayed together in a separate hotel, Sanjana chose to be at Fairlawns -- the hotel of her childhood memories which the Kendals called home… and Geoffrey’s words resonate with every actor: Never ever allow yourself to give less that a 100 per cent – even to an empty matinee.