The last of the Raj exited stage right but the Gaiety Theatre soldiered on
The year is 1894 and in Shimla the Merry Merchant of Venice is playing to packed houses at the new Gaiety Theatre.
It’s a burlesque, employing the outline plot of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to satirise the class-consciousness and affectations of the rulers of the Raj and their make-believe English town in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The Bassanio and Portia of this production are Captain Annesley and Mrs Iggulden, both stalwarts of the Amateur Dramatics Club, which likes to think of itself as bigger and older than any other in India. A sepia photograph of them still hangs in an upstairs gallery at the Gaiety; Annesley all moustaches, Mrs Iggulden adopting something of the look of the queen of the English stage, Ellen Terry. And the Gaiety itself, after restoration in 2009 (pictured below), is still accommodating play-goers in the 320 plush seats of its sea-green auditorium.
Fifteen amateur groups now perform plays in English and in Hindi, where once a young journalist named Rudyard Kipling tried his hand at the acting game. His performance, as Brisemouche in Sardou’s popular farce A Scrap Of Paper, was so appalling that he never trod the boards again. Opened in 1887 as part of a complex that included library, ballroom and reading room, alongside town hall and police station, the Gaiety is now a rare survivor of the Victorian Gothic style of theatre-building. Designed by Henry Irwin, architect of the imposing Scottish Baronial Viceregal lodge that stands at the far end of Shimla’s ridge, it was modelled on the Gaiety Theatre in London.
In the early days (pictured right), its staple fare was the work of an army of now-forgotten scribblers, alongside giants of the theatre like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde; The Importance Of Being Earnest made its debut at the Gaiety during the 1904 season. Later, it hosted many a thespian band, notably the travelling theatre company founded by the
parents of Warwickshire-born actress Felicity Kendal, which toured India in the 1940s and 1950s. Now it’s busy perhaps fifteen days in each month, a survivor of the Raj that has taken its place among the cultural curiosities of independent India. The Viceroy and his lady may no longer take centre stage in their gilded box, but the Gaiety is still part of what Kipling called ‘the life that fizzes in the everlasting hills.’