It is Aug. 15, 1947: midnight – the exact moment of India’s independence. The large sectional screen covering the back wall of the stage is aglow with historical footage of India and is the only light on stage. Downstage from the screen are two beds, where two women are giving birth at the same time. The sound of the news footage is punctuated by the screams of the women. This is only the beginning. The play becomes more involved from here on out.
“Midnight’s Children” is told by Saleem Sinai, one of the 1,001 children born in the hour of India’s independence, all of whom are endowed with special gifts. Saleem’s story precedes him, as he narrates the struggle of his grandparents, parents and finally himself, all attempting to find love and raise a family against the backdrop of political uproar. “Midnight’s Children” is also the story of that uproar, recounting the struggle of twentieth century India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Yet, just when it seems that this play might be too grand for comprehension, it is drenched in all the details that comprise everyday humanity. The characters of “Midnight’s Children” are all human beings, who lust and hate and make love to one another (when they can). They bare children and question God, show moments of unbelievable strength and also pitiful weakness. Saleem believes himself to be at the center of history, willing historical events to happen. He is also a boy, self conscious about the size of his nose and his own sexual awareness.
Twenty actors comprise the cast of this play, portraying over seventy roles. Zubin Varla as Saleem is astounding. One moment he narrates the events of his life to the audience, the next he takes part in the action on stage, then he steps out of his life again to converse with the woman he recounts his story to, Padma. Costume changes happen on stage, and help to show differences in time and place.
The set of “Midnight’s Children” is never stationary for long. The only permanent, and the most elaborate, set piece is the sectional screen on the back wall of the stage, which could also be split or joined to suggest a doorway or curtain. There are many scene changes, and often a new place or time period is suggested by various moveable set pieces and drapery that fly in from the ceiling. Lighting effects are also very important. They portray everything from scene changes to civilian massacres. This type of staging keeps the play moving without any long black outs for transitions (important in a three and a half hour show!) and it also allowes the footage on the screen to take primary focus as it is playing.
The screen plays a very important role. The story of “Midnight’s Children” is too big to be told through one medium alone. With the historical footage, the screen helps to ground the audience in a time and place, or create an interesting juxtaposition between historical events and the events in Saleem’s life. The screen is also how the midnight’s children converse, representing the interior workings of Saleem’s head, as he is the only midnight’s child who can hear all the others as part of his gift.
“Midnight’s Children” is a show that defies all attempts at explanation. It is totally self contained; it is not necessary to read the novel in order to comprehend the play. Phenomenal actors, breath-taking costumes and impressive staging all come together to bring the timeless words of Salman Rushdie to life.