India Run

In October 2014, Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad Of Nihal Armstrong headed to India for a four city tour.

This run was part of  Going Solo, India’s first  and only International Solo Theatre Festival.

9, 10 October 2014, FICCI Auditorium
13,14 October 2014, Gyan Manch
16,18 October 2014, Rangashankara
21 October 2014, NCPA Experimental Theatre
22 October 2014, St Andrews


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From the Telegraph, Calcutta:

“Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong was another tour de force, composed by Rahila Gupta entirely in rhymed ballad stanzas, and enacted by Jaye Griffiths as the mother of a child with cerebral palsy who … gave a heart-wrenching performance of the mother’s struggles for Nihal’s dignity, education, equal rights, and of course their love.”


GS – Guy Slater, Director “Don’t Wake Me”
R – Rahila Gupta, Playwright, “Don’t Wake Me”
J – Jaye Griffiths, Actor, “Don’t Wake Me”

OCT 7.
J and I met – more or less sleepless – at airport by cheerful Teamworks volunteer. Telephone glued to her ear she walks us to car. Heat bracingly oppressive.
Our hotel The Lemon Tree is in “Aerocity” (which speaks for itself) but smart, with huge atrium, friendly reception staff, vast swimming pool beckoning, so it is looking good. Breakfast / lunch of biriani, short rest in comfortable, functional room then car comes to take us (an hour’s drive) both dressed up for the Gala launch, J immaculate and gleaming, me in my salwar kameez to magnificent Taj Hotel for tea with Teamworks Team, Suraj, Rima, Kritika, joined by R (bearing appropriate Indian sandals for me, elegant, wearable but painfully tight) and her friend Joan and later Sanjoy Roy, Teamworks boss, himself. A jolly getting-to-know-you tea while we wait for the ever-shifting press conference to start. Finally we retire to a secluded reception room where a gleaming table is set up with the Teamworks players– now including the redoubtable Guy Masterson who will be giving his one man show, Shylock (Robert Softley the third and last of the performers still en route) – lined up on one side facing at first only a single journalist and a few cameras. We all chip in and make a reasonable fist of it as a couple of other journos turn up. Then upstairs – it is dark by now – to the gardens gorgeously lit, carpeted in candles and a small stage where Guy M gamely does an extract from his show in front of smart artistic Delhi, all glammed up. (Guy’s show, which we would all later enjoy, is done no favours by the setting. It had previously been agreed – at our firm insistence! – that it would be totally inappropriate to do an extract from Don’t Wake Me). A few big wig speeches, a sponsor, Sanjoy, Rob Lynes, Director of British Council India then drinks and canapés and more press interviews. I sought out Sunil who had been given the seemingly impossible task of sourcing / building our set and props in each of the 4 cities and was much reassured by him and his photos, despite learning that work had not actually begun yet as they were just emerging from a five day bank holiday! He seemed confident so I decided to follow suit, J (and I) much revived by said drinks and canapés and excited chat and attention, but finally the sleepless flight began to tell and bearing our early start the following morning in mind we went off to find our car, me by now hobbling in the beautiful–but-too-tight sandals.
An unscheduled day.
R had arranged for a car to take J and I to the Taj Mahal in Agra which we are told is 3 or 4 hours drive away. We leave promptly at 7.00 in a little rattling car driven by Prem who speaks very little English. Cars are packed like cattle almost the whole way, nosing in front of each other, inches from disaster but with phenomenal skill never touching, never killing the apparently suicidal pedestrians, nobody losing their cool. A miracle that we are to get used to. The 3 or 4 hours turns out to be 6, busy narrow roads through small towns and light industry almost the whole way, and it is 1.00 by the time we arrive. Prem has never been to the Taj before either so doesn’t know the ropes. We are instantly assaulted by crowds of potential guides and choose one, Asif, whose English is particularly good and who promises us “Indian rates” (as opposed to a wholly unrealistic “dollar rate”).
He is excellent and charming and it is all as breathtaking as we could have dreamed of, but very, very busy and neither J nor I are too disappointed only to have an hour and a half there which we have decided is the maximum if we are to get back to our hotel at a reasonable time, let alone go to the Scottish Dancing (also promoted by Sanjoy) and dinner with Rob Lynes afterwards to which we had been invited.
We take Prem and Asif to a kind of lunch at Costa Coffee Agra (Asif’s choice) and all goes well until we pay Asif what he had asked for and we had agreed (plus what we thought of as a generous tip as he had been so good) and he expresses great disappointment so a slight (and perhaps predictable) shadow falls over our parting.
Prem takes us back by the Express Way – which Asif had been astonished hadn’t been our route in the morning – but says he doesn’t like driving his car too fast (I could understand) so it is still 7.30 at night by the time we get back to the hotel, having been stuck in the almost totally static Delhi rush hour traffic. (Prem seems, by contrast to Asif, deliriously happy with the £70.00 (plus toll fees) we gave him as we were told had been agreed – and looking later at comparable prices I am happy to say he probably did do quite well. We are knackered and too late for Scottish dancing even if we had the energy. Delicious buffet supper at hotel (vegetarian J will seem to be happy throughout on a constant diet of paneer) before retiring to get as much sleep as possible before our first get in – would the set be ready ? – technical rehearsal and first performance at the FICCI theatre the following day.

As I am getting into the car to be driven to the theatre after breakfast, Bharavi our 25 year old Technical Director / Lighting Designer bounds up and gets in the other side having flown in the night before. The moment I shake his hand I know he is going to be more than Ok
We drive through the graceful, placid pre rush hour boulevards of Delhi with their carefully maintained parks and gardens to pull in via the usual security gates to an anonymous looking yard housing what looked like an institution of some kind but is, in fact, the theatre. And there in the already baking sun all laid out – further reassurance – was our set and our props (paint almost dry) perfect except for the bench which was small – our fault as for some inexplicable reason we had sent (on one of the set lists we had emailed out) the wrong dimension for the length. Not a big problem.
The rest of the day not so relaxed. Light and sound a baffling, long drawn out nightmare. Bharavi keeping admirably calm – just – but me at one point less so. The air needs clearing and my team are grateful. I have to drop one lighting cue because it seems impossible to achieve – though why I never find out. The MP3 sound cues that I had sent out well in advance have not been stored. The back up memory stick I have with me turns out only to have one of the cues. I email the composer Sophie in London to ask het to resend them urgently – then J arrives with the main back up memory stick which has everything.
We struggle through.
“Shylock” is playing first. It is delayed by half an hour because the lighting board has collapsed.
When we go on we have no idea what is going to happen – technically – but a relatively uneventful performance takes place in front of a reasonably large but I thought unresponsive audience in the gaping lecture hall of a theatre and then they surprise all of us by giving J a (deserved) standing ovation.
Afterwards great enthusiasm, a film producer enquiring – very seriously – about film rights.
First night in India over.

OCT 10
J and I meet with R and her friend Joan and go to Old Delhi – much more interesting to me than the smart boulevards. Narrow, densely crowded Dickensian streets with every kind of shop and stall from sweetmeats and trinkets to heavy machine repairs. A crowd of men squatting in line on the pavement outside a café (looking like a chain gang) turns out to be hoping for food. The café owner, we learn, has a policy whereby if anybody gives him money he spends it on a meal for the waiting men. My modest contribution is enough for four. A fifth man scrambles to get through but is grabbed and roughly pushed back by the owner who sends him sprawling to the ground where he narrowly misses being run over by a cycle rickshaw. He looks confused by what has happened but not at all affronted. We feel helpless.
R – brought up in Delhi – takes us to the Moti Mahal, a well known old city restaurant, cheap, unflashy and utterly delicious. A large photo of Gordon Ramsay on the wall. The boss tells us Ramsay had visited and cooked with them – “Good chef but he couldn’t do butter chicken”.
I go to the theatre early to go through light and sound again – and again – and restore the missing LX cue.
More responsive house, finding the humour, but J (unsurprisingly) bothered by a photographer moving all over the auditorium taking photos until I ask for him to be stopped. Vivek Mansukhani from the British Council who has long supported bringing us to India comes for the second time, again with guests.
We learn that Sanjoy has decided to take us all out to a smart restaurant and I won’t be allowed in in my shorts. One of the many wonderful volunteers that Teamworks has recruited (in every city) goes off to buy a pair of trousers for me. A perfect fit – and £7.00. (I am wearing them as I write this in London).
We toast each other over dinner, friendships forming.

OCT 11
The great advantage of traveling in India with R is her enormous circle of friends and family who are endlessly generous with providing cars, meals and advice. One of them responds to J’s dream of seeing the Indian cricket team at play by getting two tickets for the first ODI against the WIndies. I am the lucky recipient of the second.
Or perhaps in retrospect not entirely lucky. Having loved what we saw of the game – J distinguishing herself by standing up in the middle of this delightfully noisy and very partisan crowd and screaming her support for the WIndies – we go shopping that night and when I go to pay for my purchase see that the zips (exterior AND interior) on my shoulder bag are open and my phone and an envelope containing my “per diems” (c. £150) are missing. J and I immediately remember how I had been baulked in the packed queue to get into the ground by a man apparently on his mobile and refusing to budge for me. Now it becomes clear to both of us that I have been the victim of a two man scam, the guy on the mobile, distracting me while the pickpocket skillfully fillets my shoulder bag from behind. Not a good feeling. But J and R very supportive taking me out to dinner at an upmarket restaurant famed for its cocktails called Zen – “Z” being as R points out a sound alien to Indians so was called by the staff “Jhen” – and then helping me in my slightly shaken state (despite travelling to many parts of the world over the years I have never been robbed before) to call Virgin in London to close down my phone.

OCT 12
4.00 am alarm call to get to the dawn flight to Kolkota. Early flights apparently popular in India and Teamworks has (with evident sadism) booked us on to several of them.
The child’s wheelchair has been such a problem to source that it is decided to take that with us on every flight, Guy M also has a suitcase of props and dressing so we all check baggage in together. Quite a palaver but Suraj and team see us through efficiently. The flight with Indigo apparently the most successful (deservedly) of the new independent airlines is punctual and painless.
Our hotel, the Astor by contrast to the Lemon Tree in Delhi is in the middle of the bustling, ramshackle and to me delightful city, within five minutes walk of the theatre (five minutes, that is, once the main road has been successfully crossed.) It is old with no lift and we are horrified to find that Robert, a wheel chair user, has been moved out of his ground floor room that Teamworks had specified, so will have to crawl or be carried up the stairs (he can cheerfully bump himself down them). Suraj, embarrassed, offers to book him in elsewhere but he and his team, Sam and Neil, want to stay with the rest of us. Robert considers my offer to register a joint formal complaint to the management but – doughty disability warrior though he is – decides against it.
The rooms are huge – almost suites – compared to the Lemon Tree and the walls hung with graceful photos of old (Raj) Calcutta, the huge Governor’s mansion a particularly impressive “tied cottage”.
In the evening R takes me (J taking it easy, the heat and traveling, to say nothing of the intensity of the show, taking its toll) to a renowned West Bengal Restaurant, in an old, down market part of the city, unpretentious, cramped, unlicensed, but friendly as ever and R pronounces herself delighted by the food – especially the fish. To my corrupted palate it was not so interesting.

OCT 13
As we are not called until the afternoon I find the British Council and register the theft. The helpful officer I meet (in the smart air conditioned offices, so very welcome after 1 ½ hrs trudging round the city in the punishing morning sun having been helpfully directed in every different direction!) tells me that she will notify London and HQ in Delhi and confirms that she is going to see our show.
The theatre is part of a school and so, like the FICCI in Delhi, has no street presence but it is a friendly size (350?) with good sight lines and a comfortable rake. Technical rehearsal less bumpy than in Delhi, but we are still very wary. Properly. In performance somebody apparently mysteriously mutes the speaker button after the first sound cue so chaos ensues and it takes some time to get back on track.
It is the first time Teamworks has toured Delhi and the audience is a little disappointing. Puzzlingly the tour has apparently not been promoted on the British Council mailing list. But it is well received, several actors are in, and much passion after the show.
Rohan, R’s partner, has joined us having flown from London (via Delhi) so he is understandably flagging now so we don’t stay to see Robert’s show If These Spasms Could Speak and we are directed to Calcutta’s gloriously vibrant Park St to find a meal. Members of the audience are eating in the same restaurant and, recognising J, come across to pay their respects to us.

OCT 14
No performance today.
R has a disability workshop to do, two hours drive out of the city. Rohan and I, both with some knowledge of the territory, go with her to provide support. J, wisely, decides to rest and visit the Victoria Monument. We are accompanied by another British Council officer who herds us efficiently and discreetly.
The school, which is hosting R’s workshop, turns out to be very progressive, a model of inclusion and the workshop is lively and well attended by teachers and mothers of disabled children.
They provide a late lunch sitting round the desk in the Head’s sprawling office and the debate continues enthusiastically for some time so it is dark when we get back to Kolkota – just in time to meet up with J and friends of R’s who had seen the show the previous evening (and are particularly cross with the British Council!) and who take us to a well known Chinese restaurant Golden Joy that lurks in a very run down part of the city, a gloriously Technicolor palace blazing with lights in the surrounding murk and serving delicious food – for which our generous University Professor hostess refuses to let us pay.

OCT 15
Our last day in Kolkota.
Sightseeing in the morning – Rabindranath Tagore’s House / family mansion (outside only); the house – now museum – of the leader / founder of the Indian National Army Subhas Chandrea Bose, the former Congress idealist who made a pact with both Hitler and the Japanese in his attempt to get the British out of India (the museum had painted footprints along the appropriate corridors showing the escape route he took to get out of the house to get away from Calcutta and the British in 1943 – the car he left in is preserved in a glass box); and the gardens of the beautiful Marble Palace with its slightly sad menagerie / zoo.
Performance better attended. Technically clean but enlivened by a rat sneaking across the corner of the stage. Standing ovations seemingly the norm but the post show passion genuine.
To bed asap as another wretched 4.00 am call the next morning for flight to Bangalore / Bengaloru.
OCT 16
Early start justified – though to their intense embarrassment the entire Teamworks Team oversleep and J runs around waking them up! – because both Shylock and Spasms are performing in the evening and both have to do tech rehearsals during the day.
Hotel in Bengaloru part of the same Lemon Tree chain – one of the tour’s sponsors – and the rooms are identical. I rest and then use the gym – where I findnd the much fitter J already sweating on the treadmill – and the little pool.
In the evening I walk a kilometer or so to find a frantically busy market / shopping area, traffic an unceasing flow, so crossing the road involves a parting of the sea. Cows wonderfully unperturbed on the pavment. Seemingly every 100 yards or so a beautifully ornate temple set amongst the clothes shops and trinket stalls and ATM’s.

OCT 17
Gym and pool again in the morning in a desperate gesture to counteract the curries, then in pm to the theatre – the best we have seen. Purpose built, modern feeling (semi-thrust) with energized crew. Bharavi’s home theatre and everything he had promised us. Good, crisp technical then well attended first performance, audience wonderfully responsive and enthusiastic.
Afterwards Bharavi has organized a private dinner for us at an upmarket restaurant / fashion outlet, 7 courses cusine very minceur resolutely European food served outside in leisurely fashion on the verandah at the (by Indian standards) dizzying cost of £25.00 each. Memorable and fun all to be out together (until 1.30!) and we have all grown to love Bharavi but some of us secretly felt we had not come to India to eat European food at inflated prices….
Good to be in a city that seemed to talk theatre.

OCT 18
One of R’s estimable friends provides us with a car to get out of the city (insisting the high rise / high tech area for which it is renowned is boring) and we struggle through the usual gridlocked traffic to finally reach the Nandi Hills and a glorious 9thC temple of sandstone intricately laid out in successive courtyards displaying a magnificent ancient war chariot at the front. A film crew is filming some classical dancers in one of the courtyards giving us some idea of the athleticism and precision required. A great trip.
That evening another almost full and very appreciative house.
Afterwards we stay and see If These Spasms Could Speak by and with Robert Softley. More anecodotal, perhaps than pure drama but brave and passionate and involving – and charmingly delivered by Robert

OCT 19
R and I are singled out for the dawn flight to Mumbai (our final destination) as we are both holding workshops that day at the Avid Foundation, a charity dedicated to spreading knowledge of and interest in the arts. Suraj and Rima get up heroically at 4.30 to see we are OK but then we are on our own. We negotiate the airport successfully without the minders we have become so used to.
I am up first so am taken straight to the Foundation from the airport. I have offered a workshop on “planning a scene on film” which I developed teaching at the London International Film School.
The plan is to divide the students into small teams, give them a short non-specific scene and ask them to find a nearby location that they could adapt and plan both how to stage it and how to shoot it. Later we all go on their locations and discuss their choices. I had specified that it worked best with 12 students over 4 hours. The evening before I had learned that I had 25 students and only 2 hours. On arrival I find the very helpful and courteous team had squeezed another hour for me and everyone takes to it enthusiastically, using the exterior of the building and the nearby racecourse to construct and plan how they would stage and shoot their ‘virtual’ scenes. I enjoy their enthusiasm and am pleased to be asked if I would return for a two day workshop one day.
Our hotel is the legendary Royal Bombay Yacht Club. There is a good reason why it has not dropped the “Royal”. It is gloriously set in aspic, seemingly almost identical to what it must have been under the British – to me, a child of the Raj, a source both of unease and amusement. Long, dark, tiled corridors hung with photos of long dead (mainly British) members (and their yachts), a Gentleman’s Changing Room, Ladies Changing Room, a ballroom, an “anchorage”. The rooms themselves – suites – are enormous, entrance lobby, pantry, bathroom. The huge bedrooms sport what have to be called “Imperial” (ie vastly bigger than “King”) sized beds with a solid wood base and skimpy mattress – surprisingly comfortable. and encompass dining area, sitting area and desk/ study area, opening onto a vast balcony overlooking the sea and the Gate of India.
R has her workshop in the afternoon and we all gather in the evening for dinner at the hotel. Very inexpensive, perfectly good if unadventurous food (was that how the old sahibs liked it? I could see my father very much at home…) though it takes on this occasion (it is a Sunday) an hour to arrive!
A delightfully eccentric place to spend the last part of our tour.

OCT 20
Unscheduled day for us. as “Spasms” and Shylock are playing.
Shopping in the morning followed by nostalgia as we eat in one of R’s favourite student cafes and later visit St Xavier’s her alma mater where it is half term and there is a vast film shoot setting up in most of the quads. To my surprise we are able to make an unannounced courtesy call on The Principal who receives us with great charm. J assiduously leaflets everyone with fliers for the show.
While Rohan and I (clearly considered useless males) inspect the Gate of India R and J go on a hunt for gifts for the Teamworks Team and come back with silver (plated) pens with “Going Solo 2014”inscribed on one side and “SPASMSWAKESHYLOCK” on the other.
We eat at Leopold’s the popular café made (in)famous during the terrorist siege of the Taj. They have left the bullet holes in the walls.
Later we present our gifts to the team which are well received.

OCT 21
My now growing confidence in the ability of the team to overcome the enormous logistical challenge involved in getting together set and props in every city is dented as we arrive at the theatre for the technical rehearsal in the afternoon to find them still building the screens on the forecourt. The result is a certain amount of tension as we try to light a non-existent set but tempers are kept. It is a lovely, intimate theatre, everyone pulls together and the decent sized audience is the best we have had, picking up on the humour as no others have done on the tour, and spellbound by the dark sections at the end. Very rewarding.
After the show we are generously hosted to a dinner by the British Council in the theatre complex restaurant.

Oct 22
Bharavi has introduced me to an actress he is working with called Jyoti Digra whose work sounds unusual and interesting. As we are not going to be able to see it she has offered to do an extract at our hotel.
She arrives at 11.00. J has had a bad night and is sleeping in so we invite Jyoti to R’s room and she performs in front of R, me and Rohan.
It is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I had been wary – though intrigued – by what she had said about her show and, specifically, her passion for Grotowski, but in the event all three of us are utterly mesmerized and delighted by her skill and wit. I believe she could have an enormous following and promise to write to Sanjoy to ask him to look at her work.
Our performance that night is in a big old-fashioned theatre in North Mumbai, an hour’s drive from the hotel. Bookings are thin (it is the night before of Diwali) but in the event a decent house assembles. But a lot of late arrivals, people moving to better seats and low level disturbance, not good for our play, and it comes to a head in the last highly charged scene in which J invariably goes into emotional orbit when mobile phones go three times, the recipient taking the call and talking as he leaves the theatre. J – not surprisingly – is punctured. She plays out the scene but the energy is gone and it is a disappointing way to end the tour. The audience, however, including theatrical royalty (Dolly Took) is very sympathetic to her and give her a great response.
Afterwards one of R’s oldest friends invites us to her apartment and we have dinner with her family as Diwali fireworks blast the sky from balconies and rooftops across the road.

OCT 23
Teamworks (except Bharavi) decamped during the night back to Delhi, tour over. We have elected to stay the extra day.
Tourist time. We take a boat round the harbour, wander along the beach by the breathtaking Marine Drive eat exquisitely in an upmarket café thronged with people celebrating Diwali, visit the Malabar Hills and the Hanging Gardens. Then J and I say goodbye to R and Rohan who are staying on with friends for another week and get back to the hotel for an early supper prior to our 2.30 am call for our flight back to London the following morning – a flight that in the event is delayed by 7 hours making an exhausting and baleful ending to an otherwise memorable and rewarding tour.

Guy Slater