Iconic, encyclopaedic, and kaleidoscopic, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has garnered a healthy sense of both wariness and respect from critics and readers alike over the course of its 39 years. It was, after all, dubbed the ‘Booker of all Bookers’, and its sprawling 446-page exploration of Indian politics spans nearly 7 decades, got Rushdie sued for libel by the Indian Prime Minister, and re-invented the post-Independence Indian English canon. It is nothing if not ground-breaking.
It’s no surprise, then, that Rushdie’s 2003 decision to adapt the novel for the RSC stage, alongside theatre-scene mainstays Tim Supple and Simon Reade, ruffled a few feathers. As critic Philip Fisher wrote, the venture seemed to sit “somewhere between brave and foolhardy”. The eventual outcome was tepid, earning smatterings of three and four-star reviews; the production failed spectacularly to rise to the heights of its literary predecessor. Its glory arrived, though, in its attention to that truth which seems so often neglected in adaptations – that the page and the stage are fundamentally different.
Rushdie’s works hinge around a nuanced understanding of colonial and postcolonial India, and a sense that, as he writes, “history has become debateable”. The (post)colonial ‘condition’, he believes, is far too complex to be lumped into one, empirical history with a capital H. As his protagonist, Saleem Sinai, quips, “reality is a question of perspective” – and whether that perspective is upper-class or lower-class, Western or Indian, matters. The magical realist approach to this subjectivity is what made Rushdie’s name; he lashes Saleem to Indian history from the get-go (“at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world”), and the eras of Partition and Independence are charted by a tumultuous personal history involving metaphorically potent growing pains, identity questioning, and debauchery.
Rushdie wasn’t content, though, to simply mirror a national and stringently political history through these personal goings-on – this seemed too much like a concession to its Imperial gaze. The genius of the novel is in Saleem’s complete unreliability as a narrator; he is hilariously egotistical and often “cannot say […] what the actual sequence of events might have been”. In a deft postmodernist stroke, Rushdie frees his characters from the compulsion to map out a comprehensive history, instead allowing their individual stories to take centre stage. History is not about large-scale, national events anymore – it is about the impact which it has on real people. Readers can view, finally, (post)colonial India not through distanced Western eyes, as has so often been the case, but through those of its own people.
The novel is intensely ideologically complex, then, and the interplay between its genres is vital to its power. Those who were sceptical of the stage adaptation seemed justified – would these subtle dynamics work under the probing light of the par cans? Could they even exist? Rushdie, Supple, and Reade were far too savvy to think so. Magical realism and postmodernism’s wildly different modes of expression would be difficult, near impossible, to translate faithfully from recorded word to live action; the adaptation needed to translate their clashes and confluences in some other way. This classic enigma is cracked in the Midnight’s Children stage play with a simple equation of genre and media, and the addition to the stage of a huge, technicolour screen. The play opens with “a film screen [which] dominates the stage and shows us the infinite crowd that is India today”, which then displays the “the atomic mushroom cloud” of Hiroshima. This is history in its least personal form -large-scale and absolute – and it seems as if it will remain separate from the emotional scenes depicted on-stage involving Saleem and his family members. This is Rushdie’s magical realist allegory as concocted for the theatre, with the personal on-stage divided from the national on-screen, and both irreconcilable.
Soon, though, worlds begin to collide. When Saleem first discovers his random telepathic abilities, which allow him to communicate with those who share his birthday, magic bleeds into the screen’s blunt reality – “film. The sound of the riot merges with the sound of the Midnight’s Children”. Postmodernism has intruded, as it does in the novel, in the graceful commingling of what the audience has come to take as two delineated halves of the performance, one live and one recorded. Through the second half of the play, the screen becomes increasingly bizarre and subjective, militantly un-linear in its display of “a calendar ruffled by a breeze, its pages flying off in rapid succession to denote the passing of the years”. Both stage and screen, then, become the locus of unreality, as the play dissolves the boundaries between its own media in a virtuosic recognition of Indian history’s complicated reality. It is not enough to project “[the] First World War, marching soldiers” and separate it from small-seeming lives which the actors depict – these are one and the same.
This media manipulation is a triumph, but the original decision to adapt Midnight’s Children for the stage lends itself equally importantly to Rushdie’s (post)colonial imaginings. The German theatre guru Hans-Thies Lehmann famously stated that theatre presents a completely fictitious world, which requires the “imagination and empathy of the spectator to follow and complete the illusion” – each audience member, then, perceives and reacts to a play completely differently. The idea of some sort of real ‘truth’ in drama becomes absurd, and this is a strikingly familiar concept for the Rushdie reader. It reminds us of the author’s refusal of an objective history – the intensely personal experience of watching a play becomes a perfect representation of the “one billion kinds of difference” which exist in postcolonial India.
The Midnight’s Children adaptation works because of its sensitive translation of the verbal to the visual, which produces intermingling poles and shifting perceptions of a power perhaps more movingly than in the original novel. It works, too, because the qualities of drama itself lend themselves so brilliantly to Rushdie’s worldview; not to stage the play would have been to stunt the artistic possibilities of the story. The show may well have ended up, as critic David Finkle deemed it, a “well-meaning shambles”– but it was an expertly designed one.