(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/30/2021; Photo: Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal in Shakespeare Wallah, the second feature by Merchant Ivory Productions. Photograph: Allstar/Merchant Ivory Productions.)
The Kendal family of actors star in a story inspired by their travels around India, whose booming film industry upstages their theatrical troupe.
The actor Geoffrey Bragg was born in 1909 in the Lake District and later adopted the name of his birth town of Kendal but, at schools and theatres across India in the 1940s and 50s, he was recognised simply as the “Shakespeare Wallah”. The adventurous troupe of performers he led in productions of classic plays included his wife, Laura Liddell, daughter Jennifer and youngest daughter Felicity Kendal, who worked first as a stage hand then made her acting debut aged nine as Macduff’s son in Macbeth.
Geoffrey Kendal and his family star together in the film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory as the second feature for their fledgling Merchant Ivory stable. In the film, the Kendals’ theatre ensemble, which was named Shakespeareana, morphs into a troupe called the Buckingham Players. In this motley company, Geoffrey and Laura play the parents, essaying the great tragic and comic roles on stage while keeping the books for their winding third-class travels around the subcontinent. Eighteen-year-old Felicity plays their daughter, Lizzie, giving her Desdemona and Ophelia by night while embarking on a romance with playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Jennifer Kendal, who was Kapoor’s offscreen wife, has a small supporting role and designed costumes for the film.
Shakespeare Wallah is set in a rapidly modernising India whose pop culture is eclipsing English traditions and rendering the Buckingham Players an anachronism. The booming homegrown film industry is represented by Bollywood star Manjula (played by actor turned chef Madhur Jaffrey) who also has a relationship with Sanju. Lizzie finds herself directly competing against a glamorous screen icon, just as the stage views cinema as a rival.
Although the film is rooted in a specific sociocultural moment for India, the threat posed to theatre by screen entertainment remains as universal now as it did then. In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor: “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognise that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.
And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades such as in Fellini’s Variety Lights (1950) or George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights (1960). But Shakespeare Wallah has a clear-eyed view of the company’s itinerant life as they veer from private performances in palaces to remote school audiences, the thrill of acting offset by umpteen card games and window gazing in between.