Britain, India, Shakespeare, and the Nightwatch Constabulary1

Par Varsha Panjwani
Publication en ligne le 13 décembre 2018


In his review of 2012 Much Ado About Nothing (directed by Iqbal Khan for the Royal Shakespeare Company), prominent theatre critic Michael Billington compared it unfavourably to John Barton's 1976 production. Both productions transposed the action to India; while Barton’s was set in colonial India with an all-British cast, Khan’s moved the scene to contemporary India with all Brasian actors.2 Like Billington, this essay also compares the two RSC productions. Zooming in on the portrayal and reception of Dogberry (whose inability to master the English language is mined for comedy in this play) and the rest of the watch, this essay demonstrates that Khan’s production challenged long-standing orthodoxies in the representation of Indians. After studying the reviews of these productions, the essay argues that we need to pay attention to the dearth of diverse voices among Shakespeare reviewers in the UK today.

Dans son article sur Much Ado About Nothing monté par Iqbal Khan (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2012), Michael Billington, le célèbre critique dramatique, disait lui préférer l’interprétation de John Barton datant de 1976. Les deux mises en scène transposaient l’action en Inde ; alors que Barton plaçait l’action dans les Indes coloniales avec une distribution d’acteurs britanniques, Khan situait la pièce dans l’Inde actuelle avec des acteurs britanniques d’origine indienne. Comme le compte-rendu de Billington, cet article compare les deux mises en scène de la Royal Shakespeare Company. En se concentrant sur l’interprétation et la réception de Dogberry (son incapacité à maîtriser la langue anglaise est source de comédie dans cette pièce) ainsi que des autres membres de la Patrouille, cet article démontre que la mise en scène de Khan défiait des lieux communs anciens en ce qui concerne la représentation des Indiens. Après étude des articles rendant compte de ces deux interprétations, cet essai montre que nous devons prêter attention au manque de voix diversifiées parmi les critiques de théâtre dans la Grande-Bretagne d’aujourd’hui.


Texte intégral

1For the World Shakespeare Festival (2012) in Britain, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) announced a Much Ado About Nothing (henceforth Much Ado) directed by Iqbal Khan. This was the second RSC Much Ado to be set in India, the first one being John Barton’s production in 1976. Barton’s Much Ado was set in India during the time of the British Raj while Khan’s Much Ado was set in urban India in the twenty-first century, and both received ample reviewing space in the press. Discussing Shakespeare theatre reviewing, Paul Prescott describes newspaper reviewers as “constabulary that has faithfully kept its nightwatch since the eighteenth century”.3 In the case of these two productions, this nightwatch constabulary made much ado over the onstage constabulary of Much Ado. This essay is concerned with what the two productions’ portrayal and reception of the watch revealed about the state of Shakespeare reviewing in Britain.


2The stage in Barton’s 1976 production was populated with both British and Indian characters. As the action unfolded in nineteenth-century India, Leonato presided over what resembled a British household from the colonial period and Dogberry was based on the chowkidaars (watchmen) employed by the British sahibs (sirs) and memsahibs (madams) as part of their large retinue during the Raj. While the upper-class characters were all presented as British living in India, John Woodvine played Dogberry as an Indian, complete with brown-face make-up, a turban, and a supposedly Indian accent.

3The problematic history of white actors playing in “brown-face” in Britain and the USA has been noted before but these tensions multiply in the role of Dogberry.4 By portraying the malapropisms-spouting Dogberry as an Indian, Barton’s production recalled the pernicious stereotype of the “Indian babu”. An officer stationed in India in the time of the Raj recalls how “babu jokes, based on the English language either wrongly or over-effusively applied were a constant source of amusements [sic] for all ‘Anglo-India’’’.5 A cartoon [] published in 1930 in the British magazine, Punch, demonstrates the popularity of this caricature as it features two Indian Babus intent on using English idioms such as, “we have buttered our bun and we must lie on it” and “how shall I keep the cat from the bag?” even as they mix these up.6 The magazine’s satire relies upon their readers both recognizing the stereotype and finding it funny.

4Rather than disappearing with the end of the colonial rule, the spectre of the “Indian babu” was omnipresent in British media and literature, and Barton’s Dogberry contributed to this trend. The racism of this portrayal was pointed out by Harold Hobson. In his review for The Sunday Times, he wrote:

Mr Barton’s premise is that a coloured man is funny merely by being coloured. Ridicule his salams [salutes], comic ways of sitting down, and too precise forms of speech, and you have something that sends audiences into paroxysms of delight. Personally, I found this racial joke offensive.7

5However, Hobson was in the minority. The rest of the audience, including the reviewers seem to have enjoyed an extended “babu” joke. To quote a few instances, Dick Murray remarks how John Woodvine “proves an [sic.] hilarious scene-stealer as the dim-witted Dogberry. Obsequious to the English Queen he may be, but Dogberry is murderous to the Queen’s English!”.8 J. C. Trewin makes an explicit connection with the “Indian babu” when he observes that “the sharpest break with convention” in Barton’s production was to “turn that monumental idiot, Dogberry, to an Indian sergeant from a Babu world; John Woodvine and his fellows, who know what belongs to a Watch, illuminate the familiar”.9 For Robert Cushman in The Observer, “the lower orders are all loyal natives, which lends strange conviction to John Woodvine’s Dogberry, both in his struggles with the English language and his pride in it”.10

6As a British-Indian woman of colour living in London, it is frustrating when people supposedly compliment me by remarking that “your English is very good!” with surprise in their voices because the underlying assumption is that a brown person speaking good English is an exception to the rule. Interestingly, an Indian woman makes an appearance in Benedict Nightingale’s review in which he notes that “the audience enjoyed John Woodvine’s subcontinental Dogberry, an aspiring lawyer who knows less English than he thinks he does, though I’m not sure his earnest malapropisms and funny accent were much appreciated by a lady in a saari sitting near me”.11 Apart from this reference to the dissenting reaction of a viewer with a different background in Nightingale’s review, Michael Coveney noted “a murmur in some quarters that the playing of Dogberry by John Woodvine as a turbaned Indian of clerkish manner and Peter Sellers voice is in some way offensive, even racist” only to then quash even this “murmur” by speculating “anyway, I doubt if the RSC has yet received one complaint from the Warwickshire Indian community over the interpretation”.12 It became increasingly apparent in the exclusionary space created by this collection of reviews that a problematic representation on stage was compounded by lack of diversity in reviewing voices where a “lady in a saari”, even when ventriloquised by Nightingale, was only allowed to make a fleeting appearance or when Coveney spoke on behalf of the “Warwickshire Indian community”.


7Nearly four decades later, Khan’s production (in a marked contrast to Barton’s) employed a Brasian cast and set the production in contemporary India.13Simon Nagra’s Dogberry was, as usual, happy to make odorous” (III.5.15) comparisons and proud that he had “comprehended two auspicious persons” (III.5.44).14 Moreover, in Khan’s production, the audience did not have to wait for Dogberry to appear towards the middle of the play because he ad-libbed pre-show announcements such as “nobody is taking camera—very well-behaved!”

8Nagra’s Dogberry presented a fine contrast to the way in which language was spoken by other characters. For instance, sample this YouTube video [] in which Meera Syal’s Beatrice and Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick make Shakespeare’s words sound freshly-minted.15 The rest of the actors delivered their lines in a range of Indian accents and sometimes, the language was slightly altered so that Shakespeare’s text was peppered with Punjabi, Urdu, and Hindi words.

9The aural diversity and the casting choices, however, led to reviewers repeatedly questioning the actors’ prowess with Shakespeare’s language. In The Telegraph, Charles Spencer writes that “the company’s delivery of Shakespeare’s dense language, 70 per cent of which is in prose in this play, frequently offers more in the way of vigour than elegant clarity”. He makes this point again while stating that Syal “doesn’t always seem at ease with the often knotty language” and Michael Billington in The Guardian wanted to “urge Khan to pay more attention to narrative and verbal clarity”.16 Making the connection between dialogue delivery and the ethnicity of the characters and actors explicit, Billington remarks that Khan also overlooks a simple fact that strikes any visitor to India – the fastidious precision in the use of the English language”.17It is worth pausing to examine the unselfconsciousness of this claim. Billington assumes that the observations of “any visitor” are more valid than Khan’s lived experience of growing up in Birmingham with a huge Indian diaspora population and listening to his father read newspapers aloud to him in Asian accents, which perhaps inspired the dialogue deliveries of the older generation of characters such as Leonato.18 Khan was also right about the way in which Indian cosmopolitan youth speaks Hinglish (a mixture of Hindi and English) mixed further with vernacular languages.19 There is a disjunction between Billington and Khan’s impression of the way in which Indians speak because Billington is still expecting “babu English”, or, as he puts it, a tendency towards “a fastidious precision in the use of English language”. This time, the reviewers made the entire cast sound like Dogberrys not capable of handling Shakespeare’s words.20

10So far, this essay has only touched upon journalistic reviews of Khan’s production. Let us now examine academic reviews which have the benefit of being written by Shakespeare scholars who are given more relaxed timescales and word-counts. Reviewing the 2012 production for Shakespeare Bulletin, a journal which regularly features production reviews, Justin B. Hopkinsopines that the actors’ delivery was marked by “unfortunate and near-universal speeding and slurring”. It is not surprising to note that this academic review is in tandem with the newspaper reviews because Hopkins quotes Billington in full to assert that he “shared Michael Billington’s frustration.” What is surprising, however, is that after contributing to the narrative that the Asian cast does not have a firm grasp of Shakespeare’s language (they are “speeding and slurring”), he implies that it is Khan’s production that is guilty of stereotyping when he wonders “whether Dogberry’s malapropisms—both scripted and ad-libbed—didn’t cross some line separating harmless caricature and insulting stereotype”.21

11Other academic reviewers, too, shared Hopkin’s sentiment.For instance, on his blog, The Bardathon, which attests to his formidable reviewing output and combines journalistic speed with academic observations, Peter Kirwan similarly states that he felt “some discomfort at the stereotyping of Indian city life evoked as, during the pre-show, an actor leaned in and asked [him] if [he] would ‘like hotel. Very nice hotel’”.22 Kirwan here is referring to the ad-libbed speeches of Dogberry which, according to him, led to the stereotyping of “Indian city life” in this production.

12Reviewing the 2012 production for Cahiers Élisabéthains, Peter J. Smith is more assertive in making this claim. For him the production’s Achilles’ heel was the watch and it was here that Khan’s determination to spell out the play’s humour was most heavy handed”. Considering that one of the visual gags relating to the watch involved onstage urination, it is tough not to agree with Smith’s assessment. He further argues that this representation of the watch combined with “plenty of pantomime bumping into each other, dropping objects and visual clowning” elsewhere in the play “served not only to undermine the potential tensions of the central plot but also to characterise contemporary India as a bumbling and incompetent place run by caricatures from the seventies sit-com, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”.23

13At first glance, it appeared that academic reviews kept up with the increasing inclusivity of Shakespeare productions because they took issue with Khan’s and Nagra’s representation of Dogberry as an Indian who spoke incorrect English and had clownish mannerisms. It seemed that the racist portrayal that had gone unchallenged in Barton’s production was now being questioned in Khan’s. Upon closer inspection, however, these academic reviews are problematic because they undermine the diversity presented by Khan’s production. While their reviews would have been appropriate criticisms of Barton’s 1976 Much Ado because it divided the competent and incompetent characters along national and racial lines, Khan’s production cannot be faulted in the same way because it resolutely refused to present a single picture of Indians. Instead, this production gave its audience a diverse range of Indian people from Beatrice-like women with their own businesses to Hero-like women who would prefer to be homemakers, and from the blundering watch to the philosophically inclined Benedick – who, collectively, characterise contemporary India. Smith and Kirwan (more than Hopkins) themselves note the sensitive interpretations and deft line deliveries of Bhattacharjee’s Benedick and Syla’s Beatrice but then turn against their own observations to claim that Dogberry and the watch’s portrayal led to/can lead to stereotyping the entire “contemporary India” or “Indian city life”. Smith’s review mentions that “plenty of pantomime bumping into each other, dropping objects and visual clowning” elsewhere in the play contributed to his assessment.24 However, his very specific reference to It Ain’t Half Hot Mum suggests that it is primarily the representation of the watch that led to his conclusion; not only is this British sitcom about inept troops in India but it also has links to the presentation of Dogberry in Barton’s 1976 production because Woodvine “apparently patterned his caricature after Michael Bates’s character” from this very series.25

14When the three academic reviewers above transition from the specific critique of the watch in Khan’s production to argue that Khan’s production might be guilty of stereotyping India as a whole, they undermine the plurality of Indians presented on the stage. This becomes clearer if we imagine a production of Much Ado set in England, presented by British actors. In this circumstance, no reviewer would walk out of the theatre and assume that the bumbling watch or a lone comedian’s extra-textual lines about a cheap hotel characterize the whole of contemporary Britain as an incompetent place. They would have understood that this caricature is only meant to poke fun at a certain kind of British constable or salesman. Yet, when confronted with an all-Asian cast, the reviewers latch on to the portrayal of the watch and now use it to overlook the heterogeneity of Indians presented in this production.

Reviewing: 1976, 2012, The Future

15After examining the 1976 and the 2012 Much Ado productions, it was encouraging to note that the production practices at the RSC had steadily steered towards more inclusivity – an all-Asian cast had replaced brown-face and the portrayal of Indians had changed so that the diversity of Indians was reflected on the stage. Disappointingly, a corresponding change in newspaper reviewing had not taken place. Journalistic reviews in the mainstream press continued to mirror each other in 2012 as they had done in 1976. Although a little more political correctness was found in these reviews, age-old perceptions about Indians being only capable of speaking in a certain way and not being equal to the task of handling Shakespeare’s language were still being rehearsed.

16The world of academic reviewing, however, was being reshaped in 2012. Taking advantage of the World Shakespeare Festival, with its varied range and volume of production, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project sought areassessment of reviewing practices in Britain. Prescott (Co-Investigator of the project) describes how one of the valuable lessons which the reviewers involved with the project learned was that they had to be “consistently alert to the reactions of others, especially to those of the multilingual audiences of the Globe to Globe Festival, where the performance could frequently be interpreted only via the reactions of fellow audience members”.26Whereas this vigilance was employed in the case of Anglophone reviewers critiquing a Shakespeare performance in another language, as an investigation of the reviews of the 2012 production of Much Ado has demonstrated, reviewers not only need to be open to enjoying Shakespeare in another language but also need to get used to hearing Shakespeare by actors of colour in a variety of English language accents, inflections, delivery styles.

17In Britain, we also need to invite and encourage a diverse range of Shakespeare reviewers. This does not mean that a multiaural, multiethenic performance must be exactly matched with a reviewer possessing similar ethnic co-ordinates or, in case of Much Ado, that an all-Asian cast employing Shakespeare’s language can only be reviewed by an Asian reviewer with a knowledge of Shakespeare and Indian accents. As Janice Valls-Russell has usefully reminded us, such an overlap between the cultural positioning of the productions and the reviewers might not always be preferable as directors approaching Shakespeare from a different culture might want to push the boundaries of conventional reception by defamiliarizing the play for the audience. However, Janice Valls-Russell also stresses that an insider knowledge of the cultural, religious, and aesthetic codes [and I would like to add aural codes] of a production may offer useful insights.27 In the book that emerged from the Year of Shakespeare project, Prescott writes how the critics engaged by the project to review the Shakespeare productions of 2012 “offer a polyvocal and collective response in which a large group of scholars have sought to bust the academic joint, and join the beat of the nightwatch constable in order to discuss, debate and record an unprecedented year. It’s a start”.28 It is definitely a start and just as Shakespeare production has benefited from a more inclusive casting, we can enhance the polyvocality of reviewing by making space for more diverse reviewers. It is time for the “lady in a saari”, someone from the “Warwickshire Indian community”, or the “multilingual audiences of the Globe to Globe Festival” to join the beat of this nightwatch constabulary.


1  I am immensely grateful to IES Abroad (London) for funding my trip to Poland to present a draft of this essay at the ESRA 2017 Conference. I would also like to thank the participants, convenors, and the audience of ‘The Strangers’ Case and the Tracks of Performance' seminar group as their insightful questions sharpened my thinking on the topic.

2  I prefer the term Brasian (instead of British-Asian) because it connotes a more fused identity.

3  Paul Prescott, “Nightwatch Constables and Domineering Pedants: The Past, Present and Future of Shakespearean Theatre Reviewing”, in Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott, and Erin Sullivan (eds.),A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, London, Bloomsbury, 2015, p.15.

4  The most recent debate about the practice of “brown-face” was initiated by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang in their award-winning Netflix series, Master of None, episode four “Indians on TV”. This episode draws attention to white actors playing Indians in films such as Short Circuit 2 (1988), The Social Network (2010), and in a 2012 Popchips commercial.

5  Quoted in Charles Allen,Plain Tales From The Raj: Images of British India in the 20th Century, London, Abacus, 2015, p.37.

6  Leonard Raven-Hill, “The Economics of Revolution”, Punch, 5 February 1930.

7  Harold Hobson, The Sunday Times, 11 April 1976.

8  Dick Murray, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, 10 April 1976.

9  J. C. Trewin, The Birmingham Post, 12 April 1976.

10  Robert Cushman, The Observer, 11 April 1976.

11  Benedict Nightingale, New Statesmen, 11 April 1976.

12  Michael Coveney, The Financial Times, 11 April 1976.

13 Even in 2012, this was a remarkable event as Meera Syal became the first Brasian to play Beatrice on the RSC stage.

14  William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, in Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (eds.), The RSC Shakespeare, London, Macmillan, 2009. All quotations will be taken from this edition.

15  This is not a recording of the production, but a different video produced by the RSC. Nevertheless, it gives a good idea of the way in which Syal and Bhattacharjee spoke their lines [accessed 10 July 2017].

16  Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, 1 October 2012 and Michael Billington, The Guardian, 2 August 2012.

17  Billington, The Guardian, 2 August 2012.

18  See Iqbal Khan, “1960s Birmingham to 2012 Stratford-Upon-Avon”, in Delia Jarrett-Macauley (ed.), Shakespeare, Race and Performance: The Diverse Bard, London, Routledge, 2017, p. 138.

19  Sample these articles: Vineeta Chand, “The Rise and Rise of Hinglish in India”, The Conversation, 11 February2016 and ChitraUnnithan,Hinglish: The Language of Urban India?” Business Standard, 29 January 2013.

20  There is a long history of such criticisms being levelled at actors of colour. The most famous example of this is perhaps the Times’s review which described the black actor Ira Aldridge’s delivery thus: “owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in such a manner as to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery” (Quoted in Hazel Waters, "Ira Aldridge’s Fight for Equality", in Bernth Lindfors (ed.), Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius. NY, University Rochester Press, 2007, p. 99). This discrimination also parallels that faced by British actors with Northern accents. The company Northern Broadsides was formed to break the monopoly of Southern accents on classic texts and to make the audience hear these words afresh. Recently, Ben Crystal and David Crystal have also challenged the norm of performing Shakespeare in Received Pronunciation (RP) accent by promoting what they call « Original Pronunciation (OP) » which was supposedly how English was spoken in Shakespeare’s day. Although they caution that OP is just another accent, calling it the original accent might serve to replace one orthodoxy with another rather than opening Shakespeare to a multitude of accents (See the YouTube video, Ben Crystal and David Crystal, “Shakespeare: Original Pronunciation”, Available at [accessed 3 September 2017]).

21  Justin B. Hopkins, "Much Ado About Nothing (review)", Shakespeare Bulletin, 31.2 (2013), p. 293.

22  Peter Kirwan, "Much Ado About Nothing (review)", The Bardathon, 12 August 2012, Available at [accessed 10 July 2017].

23  Peter J. Smith, "Much Ado About Nothing (review)", Cahiers Élisabéthains, 82 (2012), p. 75-76.

24  The review does not mention any specific instances to illustrate this point. The only example that comes to my mind is the stage business in I.1 when Amara Khan’s Hero bumped into Sagar Arya’s Claudio and then apologised for knocking over his drink. As I have argued elsewhere, this convention is borrowed from numerous Bollywood films in which the romantic leads bump into each other and promptly fall in love at first sight. So, what appears to be “pantomime bumping into each other, dropping objects” would have registered as a Bollywood trope by the Asians in the audience. For more on this stage blocking and its implications, see Varsha Panjwani, “Much Ado About Knotting: Arranged Marriages in British-Asian Shakespeare Productions”, in Delia Jarrett-Macauley (ed.), Shakespeare, Race and Performance: The Diverse Bard, London, Routledge, 2017, p. 96-109.

25  Michael L. Greenwald, Directions by Indirections: John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1985, p. 148.

26  Paul Prescott, “Nightwatch Constables and Domineering Pedants”, p. 23. The Globe to Globe festival, presented at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, was a part of the World Shakespeare Festival.

27  Janice Valls-Russell, “Theatre Reviewing À La Mode Des Cahiers”,Cahiers Élisabéthains, 81.1 suppl (2012), p. 9-14.

28  Paul Prescott, “Nightwatch Constables and Domineering Pedants”, op. cit., p. 30.

Pour citer ce document

Par Varsha Panjwani, «Britain, India, Shakespeare, and the Nightwatch Constabulary1», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°13 - 2018, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

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Dr Varsha Panjwani teaches at Boston University (London), IES (London), and NYU (London).  Her research focuses on the way in which Shakespeare is deployed in the service of diversity in theatre and films. As well as publishing in leading international journals such as Shakespeare Survey and Shakespeare Studies, and in prestigious collections such as Shakespeare, Race and Performance and Shakespeare and Indian Cinemas, she has co-edited a special issue of Multicultural Shakespeare (2017). In add ...