Ranjit Bolt at
London's National Theatre
One day I was leafing through Time magazine's theatre section when I came across a write up on Ranjit Bolt. His famous translation of "Tartuffe" by Moliere had been staged by the Peter Hall Company at London's West End Play House Theatre in October 1991. I was familiar with Peter Hall's productions which I made a point to see during my London visits. I was intrigued with the name of Ranjit Bolt, who appeared to have an Indian connection. I nurtured the idea that I would like to know more about him. A year later I was invited by the British Council in 1992 to visit cultural and literary centres.
During my visit to the University of Coventry I lectured on theatre. I met the head of the department Clive Barker who had visited Jahangirnagar University earlier. We discussed many subjects and I told him I had not met Ranjit Bolt. He informed me that Ranjit was the nephew of Richard Bolt the author of "Man for All seasons" and was his classmate at Oxford. Barker told me that it was very difficult to get Ranjit's contact but I should try in London perhaps through the British Council.
It was at about 5.00 pm that I went to the named restaurant along with my British Council escort and we met for the first time. He was a lean tall man, casually dressed and with an air of nonchalance. He ordered tea and muffins and we got talking right away. I came to know that his father was employed as Managing Director in a British Company in Karachi and had got married there. My curiosity was satisfied about the Indian link, and we grew an immediate rapport. After a long chat Ranjit suggested we could spend the evening at a pub. I was delighted at the offer to enjoy the company of this talkative and lively man. He wanted to know about me as a playwright and the trends of the Bangladeshi stage. It was 9.00 pm before we parted company with a promise to meet at his home next day when he would give me his signed copy of the play "Tartuffe" translated by him. Ranjit was a bachelor and lived in an austere flat in Hampstead. He appeared to be a bit of a loner, although he had mentioned a girlfriend. I was sure I was going to meet this charming man later, and that one day I would even record our association. I presented him my book "Plays by Sayeed Ahmad" which he kept in his library collection of world literature.
Ranjit Bolt was born in Manchester in 1959 and had studied at Oxford University where he read classics. He told me that his maternal aunt was married to a French man and he used to visit her often in a Parisian suburb, where they lived in affluent surroundings. It was from these early encounters with French life and ways that Ranjit become familiar with the mores and manners of French society. At that time however, he did not know that he would one day gain recognition and fame as a translator of classic French plays. As far back as 1990 Ranjit Bolt had adapted Pierre Co-neilles play "The Liar" which proved to be a great success at the Old Vic Theatre. This was followed by Corneille "L'Illusion Conique" also at the Old Vic. He left his banking job to concentrate on translation. His stunning transformation of Zorilla's "The Real Don Juan," toured by the Oxford Stage Company also in 1990 received much acclaim.
It was a memorable evening and Ranjit told me before we parted company that he would be visiting his mother and father in Oxford the next day. He was very attached to his parents. On my return from London, I received a letter a month later from Ranjit. Hardly a week later I got another envelope but containing the same letter. I kept both. It showed how my friend cared for our friendship and thinking he may not have posted me the mail, sent me a second letter. Truly a great man. Ten years later we met again.
Autumn in London in 2002 was a holiday planned because a very dear English friend of ours, Claire Weldon, invited us to be her houseguests. We had been friends for over fifteen years as she started a leather crafts business in Dhaka, in the late 1980's importing to London exquisite jewellery boxes for buyers in Paris, New York and Los Angeles.
During our stay, I was scanning the papers and Claire had also bought for me a Theatre Guide. I came across a small advertisement stating that a play of Samuel Beckett names "Lessness" was on at The Cottelsoe Theatre. This very tiny hall of 80 seat capacity is part of the grand Royal National Theatre Complex on the Thames. It is used for avant garde and experimental theatre. I decided to go that very day and when we arrived for the 2.30 pm matinee I was jolted to see a large poster of Moliere's "Tartuffe", which, as I proceeded to look at, found was a translation by my good old friend Ranjit Bolt. Once again destiny had led me to seek out a person I had not contacted in years. When I enquired at the counter I was informed the last show had been held yesterday. I was disappointed, but at least I had got a chance to revive our friendship since I had lost my briefcase in 2002 in Paris and with it my telephone diary and was unable to contact Ranjit. The poster however was my saviour and I proceeded after Beckett's play (which was a marvel!) to go to the back of the National Theatre where lay the Administrative Wing. On giving my identity and enquiring about Ranjit Bolt they told me that I could speak with his agent. The agent made contact and said that Ranjit would be most happy to meet me the following day. As Claire's house was in Hampstead, at a stone's throw away, my wife and I boarded a bus to Penn Court where Ranjit lived. This is a quaint and pretty area for artistes, with roadside cafes, Italian restaurants and pubs. We rang the doorbell and Ranjit came sprinting down the stairs to greet us. We looked at each other intently trying to cover the time gap of ten years. His lively voice said, "come in, I am on the first floor." His apartment was as austere as before, but filled up to the ceiling with bookshelves. He immediately offered us lemon tea and biscuits. He told us that he had been working hard to achieve his ambition in the theatre world and that his work had enjoyed successful productions at the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis and Stratford, Ontario and other theatres in North America. He told us that his verse novel "Losing it" was published in 2001 by John Mirray, London.
Then I told him how I had seen his poster at the National Theatre, but was sorry not to see the play, as it had already concluded. I told him I had valued his first translation printed by Absolute Classic Book in 1991 autographed by him. He smiled hearing that. It was a Peter Hall production and we reminisced about the kudos he had received then, naming him as a rising star of theatrical translators. The play he said was staged at the Royal National Theatre by Sir Peter Hall, a giant of the Thespian world. I wanted to know about this new translation of "Tartuffe". He explained why he had chosen to do a second translation of the same play. He felt the play had enough scope to make it appealing to modern day secular audiences. It was rich in sarcasm and home truths. Bolt's irreverent colloquial translation and complete rhymes, underlines Moliers' role as an entertainer but carries the play further as a statement on religious hypocrisy.
Bolt's new "Tartuffe" was opened at the Littleton Theatre on the Thames on 23rd February, 2002. The artistic director of the National Theatre was Trevor Nonn (famous for his Shakespearean productions). A quotation from the Telegraph says "Bolt is clearly far from awed by Moliere's grand reputation and by his witty translation made it a cracking production in this he is greatly helped by having Martin Clunes, that master of sitcom as his star".
To answer the question of why a second "Tartuffe" I quote from the International Herald Tribune of April 2002. "Of all Moliere school-exam texts, this is the one most often revived and given new verse translations, and its problem has always been that essentially it is a one-joke play: A rich merchant is bamboozled by the religious fraud of the title, and is finally only rescued from his own folly by the implausible intervention of an all-knowing, all-forgiving king. But the news from the National is that indeed we do need a new "Tartuffe" and this is it. Not only do we get a tour de force from Martin Clunes in the title role but we also get a sparkling translation from Ranjit Bolt. Lines like "You are the stepmother from Hell" and "Pious, pompous, puffed-up git" are not exactly historically accurate, but they do give the show a contemporary energy and speed.
Most of Ranjit Bolt's translations have been published by Oberon Books of Absolute Classics and include works by Seneca, Sophocles Carneille, Beaumarchais, Brecht, Goldoni and Zorilla. His translations of Moliere plays include the Miser, the Idiot, the School for Wives, the Misanthrope, George Dandin and the Sisterhood.
We took photographs stepping out on his balcony and roof. He presented me his new edition of "Tartuffe" signed with flair. We looked at his parents' photographs on a side table, she a beautiful woman named Jaya and his handsome father Sydney. Once again he was going to meet them in Oxford on the weekend, as was his routine.
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