By Andrew Dickson for Scroll.in, 25 November 2015
I spent months trying to work out where truth ended in Shakespeare Wallah and fiction began. I dug out Geoffrey Kendal’s diaries, published in 1986, and read them cover to cover. They were enjoyably garrulous, retelling Kendal’s first glimpse of Mumbai with the Entertainments National Service Association, sent out to perform for British troops during the second world war, and his return with the troupe that became Shakespeareana in 1947.
Though full of colourful tales and hair’s-breadth escapes – the earthquake that hits halfway through a show; the actor who drives across the Himalayas in a 1935 Wolseley ambulance – the diaries nonetheless seemed remarkably incurious about India or Indians, other than as (generally) polite witnesses to the Kendals’ English-language performances. Despite the film’s many fictions, its downbeat mood seemed accurate enough: it was with tangible bitterness that Kendal recorded a Shakespeareana performance in 1962, where the locally produced poster advertised the presence of Shashi Kapoor – then beginning to make a name for himself in films – but omitted the name of Shakespeare.
Yet this wasn’t the whole story. On a rushed three-day trip to India in 2012, researching a newspaper piece on two acting companies preparing to come to the Globe in London, I’d managed to glean enough about contemporary Indian theatre to realise that Kendal’s gloom (like much else in an extravagantly contoured life) had been excessive.