2006 November: Wednesday
Returning on the overnight train from Varanasi, we were met by Vinod’s husband Shalendra outside Delhi main station. As our trip down the Ganges had been something of an indulgence, I was now keen to find out where and how the Wilde show was going to be performed on Friday night. On our way to the venue, Shalendra drove us round central New Delhi.
The city itself was divided into two parts. Old Delhi had been built in the 1600s by the Mogul emperor Shahjahan, when he shifted his capital from Agra; New Delhi had been built by the British between 1910 and 1930, when they shifted their capital from Calcutta. The two parts were entirely different in character.
The main impression I received of New Delhi was one of spaciousness; Edward Lutyens, the British architect, had allowed himself to unroll a dream of English suburbia, untrammelled by any consideration but that of respectable luxury. Wide tree-lined avenues, bordered by vast bungalows, set in enormous gardens – it’s what Stevenage could have looked like, given unlimited land and money.
Built for the officials of the Raj, it was now inhabited by the senior Indian government and army personnel and, due to terrorist activity, the security precautions were conspicuous. Some of the main gates had watchtowers and gun turrets, while the garden walls of the Prime Minister’s house and the British Embassy were adorned with rolls of barbed wire. To emphasise the point, we passed the former home of Indira Gandhi, the place where she had been assassinated and now established as a shrine.
Passing Connaught Place, a large circle of colonnades with shop fronts peeping through the arches, we drove along the Rajpath. This was the world-famous grand mall, about two and a half miles long and half a mile wide, lined with ornamental lakes and dominated by the 140ft high India Gate (the memorial to the Indian dead of the North-West Frontier campaigns and the First World War).
We drew up in front of the Habitat Centre on the Lodi Road – the prospective venue. I had been expecting some sort of converted furniture store. It turned out to be a very large and modern complex of hotels, conference centres, office blocks, an attached university campus and, given the lack of purpose-built theatres in Delhi, what was one of the prime drama venues of the capital. I hadn’t counted on this at all – this was major league stuff.
This impression was reinforced when the organiser, a brisk woman called Renu, told me that both my performances had been sold out. I’d been expecting an audience of about 100 at most – they’d sold 420 for each night! Not only that, but a TV team were awaiting my presence for an interview right now.
Stopping only to change into the Oscar costume, I was hustled through the labyrinthine complex to a bare brick open-air amphitheatre, currently cluttered with cameras and cables. Sitting around on the half moon of stone seats in front of me were about fifty people, all in their late teens or early twenties. Renu introduced me to the TV director, a bespectacled woman of about 35 – she had that slightly distant, patronising cool that I recognised instantly from similar BBC types. There must be an international ‘attitude’ training school for them or something. The spectators turned out to be drama students. Oh, hell. Drama students are the worst bloody audience in the world because instead of enjoying a show, they just sit there trying to work out how they could do it better themselves.
I performed a couple of Wilde speeches to camera that sank like a stone under the weight of the hanging jury out front, then turned to the TV interviewer. She was pretty and sprightly and clearly had absolutely no idea who Oscar Wilde was and cared less. In the face of probably the dumbest questions I’ve ever been asked (I think one was: “Did this man Wilde appear on television much?”) my normally glib replies dwindled into bad sound bites. The interview over, I was moved aside to do some ‘cutaways’, which consisted of being filmed looking soulful.
That evening, back at Vinod’s house in Gurgaon, we awaited the result. The advert breaks on Indian television can last up to seven minutes – a consumerist harangue. My effort was given thirty seconds of airtime. The annoying thing about it was that the interviewer came across as lucid and informed, while I looked and sounded absolutely fatuous.
On the other hand, only six days in India and on prime time TV already. Not bad.
2006 November: Thursday
I spent the day on the usual solitary rehearsals, circumnavigating the garden muttering Oscariana to various bushes and the odd stray dog. However, this activity was constantly interrupted by shouts from the house:
“You’re wanted on the telephone!”
It turned out that I’d been discovered by the Press! At first, it was flattering. I expounded at length on my activities to the ‘Financial Express’. The interview given to the ‘Financial Times (India)’ was slightly less fulsome, while the ‘Hindustan Times’ got a more abrupt reception. By the time ‘The Hindu’ and ‘India Tonight’ contacted I was getting bored, while the improbably named magazine ‘Trendylicious (Mumbai Edition)’ received decidedly short shrift.
It was the repetition that irked – the same old recycled drivel by myself and the same journalistic seriousness and the mirthless giggle from them. It struck me that ‘The Press’ were rather like children. If they see that one of them has a story, they all want it. This impression was reinforced when a reporter from ‘The Pioneer’ turned up to do a face-to-face interview. She looked about 14 – I thought she was reporting for her school magazine.
Later, Vinod said that it was all good publicity and told me a current story doing the rounds in Delhi. “A man was offered a choice of heaven or hell. He found heaven rather boring so asked to see a foretaste of hell. He was shown a lot of naked girls sipping ambrosia and beckoning him in. He, not surprisingly, chose hell. When he arrived he found himself in an inferno of screaming demons and lashing whips. He asked what had happened to the naked girls. The reply came: ‘Oh, that was just our publicity department’.”
2006 November: Friday
Over lunch, we discussed the practicalities of the show tonight. To my horror, I discovered that there was a ban on alcohol backstage, and – even worse – a ban on smoking on stage! The first was a nuisance but the second was a major problem. The cigarettes were vital to the show. Shalendra went off to contact the theatre authorities.
We arrived at the Habitat Centre at 5 30pm and were ushered through to the auditorium by the admin and PR squad. Once on stage I tried out the acoustics; my voice was OK for the stalls but there was an upstairs gallery as well. I decided to use a radio microphone – a bit gutless, but then I hadn’t banked on a 400 plus audience. Although, maybe I should have; you can’t do anything in India without a crowd around.
Backstage, I got the welcome news that I would be allowed to smoke onstage after all. Not only that, but two large Kingfisher lagers were waiting backstage. They had acquired a special licence to cover my dressing room. This was stardom indeed!
I stood in the wings at 7pm and waited for the music cue. There was a very large crowd out front. I listened to its subdued roar – the most terrifying sound in theatre.
Then on stage into the lights. Very surprisingly I got a laugh on the first quip – and the second – and the third. The Indian audience picked up on the comedy better than anywhere I’d played. It seemed that they liked to laugh. The size of the audience created one strange result though – some jokes were picked up in the gallery but not the stalls, and vice versa. It produced a delayed, rolling thunder effect and meant that I had to redeploy the timing. I completed the evening with a question and answer session. Not surprisingly, one question went immediately to the point of Oscar’s sexuality, still a hot topic in India. I replied:
“What’s important about Wilde is what he said, not who he went to bed with.” Which rather shut down the debate.
Back in the dressing room I sat amidst my supporters, lit a cigarette, and quaffed the lager. Some of the lager spilt on the floor and Malcolm drawled: “I don’t know how you’ve done it but you’ve managed to recreate the atmosphere of a Saturday night English pub in an Indian theatre.”
Although the venue had been sold out tonight, there had been a section of unoccupied seats. Vinod’s son Shharat explained that they had been sold to a German tourist group. When they discovered that the performance was in English they had cancelled at the last minute. We mused over the reasoning that assumed that a British show about an Irishman in a Delhi theatre should be in German?
2006 November: Saturday
I was awakened by a phone call from another newspaper seeking an interview – any eagerness for more fame had evaporated. I just groaned and told them to ring later. Also, Vinod told me Delhi University had phoned requesting an extra show. She had turned them down with I suspected some pleasure, as they had rejected her overtures when she first suggested it to them.
The fruits of all this press activity finally reached us over lunch when the ‘Times of India’ arrived. It turned out to be a cracker. Some terrific advert-friendly quotes: ‘A connoisseur’s delight’ and ‘The audience was constantly tittering, giggling, laughing and guffawing’ among them.
However, the critic turned out to be even more interested in the audience than in the show. It appears that half Delhi high society had been there last night – a major industrialist, a Bollywood star, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s family, plus many other socialites. Also, there was a very good photo of myself in the paper – usually I look like Lazurus prior to the miracle.
It was a wonderfully gushing ‘Hallo’ style review. I had a fantasy moment: ‘And in our next edition the actor Neil Titley will show us around his lovely rucksack’.
We left at 4 30pm to drive into Delhi for the next show. As we did so, Shalendra related a story about an American tourist who hired a Delhi taxi to show him the sights. At each monument, he asked the cabbie how long it had taken to build. When the answer came back as twenty, fifty, or one hundred years, he kept repeating: “Gee, that long! In the States we could do that in a year”.
Finally the cabbie had had enough. As they arrived at another vast palace, the American repeated: “And how long did that one take to put up?
The cabbie looked at the building in puzzlement and replied: “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know. It wasn’t there yesterday.”
Despite all the flattering attention and good will, somehow my performance flagged on the second night. During an early section, I felt a swimming sensation in the head and a sudden clutching feeling that I might not be able to finish the show. I lost the lines as well. I recovered but did not regain the drive afterwards. Whether it was the first real sagging of memory, or energy, or whatever, it was an awful moment.
I reached the second half – the question and answer section. The Indian audience asked some frighteningly well-informed questions, delving into areas usually the preserve of Wildean academics. Still feeling rocky, I did my best to fend them off. Then a man in the gallery asked whether I knew of any reference to India in Wilde’s work. By pure luck, the synapses clicked together. “Yes, he mentioned the Indian rupee in The Importance of Being Earnest. Miss Prism said that Cecily might omit the chapter on the Fall of the Rupee as it was too sensational. Even metallic problems had their melodramatic side.’
The questioner gave a crow of delight: “You are correct!!” My reputation had survived by a hair.
On the return journey to Gurgaon, Vinod said that one audience member had not been impressed at all. The Swiss Attaché had been sitting in front of her and had seemed to be enjoying himself until I had reached Oscar’s lines about the Swiss looking as if ‘they had been carved out of turnips’, etc. He had sat bolt upright and remained grim throughout the rest of the show. Malcolm: “I think your invitation to Zurich may have been cancelled.”
As we drove back we passed another accident. Crowds of people dashed across the road to stare at the corpse. It was the third dead body I’d seen this week, counting the possible one in the Ganges.