Shakespeare's Indian summer
(Originally written in 2006)
What could possibly be new about yet another production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, possibly one of Shakespeare's most tightly constructed plays? British director Tim Supple's interpretation at the height of the Indian summer in April 2006 provides an answer. He engages with almost every aspect he could possibly experiment with.
Touring New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata en route to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Complete Works Festival at Stratford-on-Avon in June, Supple's rendition "creating tomorrow" through collaboration between the British Council and Hutch comes through as a spirited radical encounter that leaves no one cold. It proves to be more performance than potent poetry, enmeshed in the crossed strands between stardust magic and magnetic love play.
Breaking away from the purist English tradition, the former Young Vic artistic director and RSC associate presents this first British Council commissioned theatre production through breakaway ideation, daring his audience to lose themselves in a theatrical thicket of questions. With a plot familiar to most urban Indians, Supple is on firm ground.
By the last scene of this dramatised dream at the open-air Buck's Theatre in Chennai, we want to scream aloud about basic issues. Will this production with an Indo-Sri Lankan cast work with an audience in Iceland or Indonesia? Why do we soon feel at home with Shakespearean poetry interwoven through seven languages? Do elements from bharatanatyam, kalaripayittu, malkhamb, therukoothu, bhangra and kathakali fuse into seamless body language that carries the narrative through?
As an audience, what we carry home to revisit are dramatic visual stimuli, enhanced by set and costume designer Sumant Jayakrishnan's inputs and brilliant lighting conceptualised by Zuleikha Chaudhari. Of a satin-clad stage space for a fairytale, swept away with a flourish to reveal bare red earth, seething with erotic encounters and bestiality between poetic interstices. Of a paper-clad wooden grid that has its surface ripped to shreds as characters leap through it in sexual pursuit, in playful chase, in fluent entrances and exits. Of silken swathes that entrance us as they fuse fluidly to form a hammock for the fairy queen's dream turned nightmare. Of agile characters suspended between heaven and earth on ropes, challenging life on intermediate planes. Of rich costumes donned and doffed as characters flit between identities. Of a crisscrossed mesh onstage that reflects the tangled lives at play.
Two years in the dreaming, rehearsed over seven weeks at the Adishakti theatre at Pondicherry, with a 22-member Indo-Sri Lankan cast from a shortlist of 60 auditioned in Mumbai last July, what pivots does this production rest on? Two obvious influences surge to mind. Peter Brook's 1970 Stratford staging with its trapezes and circus-like physicality, its players in primary colours, pared down to the essential Shakespeare. And Czech critic Jan Kott, who defined it as a "very powerful sexual play."
As we watch the youthful rough and tumble onstage, each move imbued with forest grace, a tropical heat surges through the performance under the boughs, as night birds screech and call overhead. Real life adds a special soundtrack to Australia-born Devissaro's nuanced score, rendered live by N. Tiken Singh, Kaushik Dutta and D. Prakash. But one element remains a puzzle a lingam-like `singing stone' by a simulated water body in the foreground, perhaps a tool for Puck's spells, which chose to remain silent during the closing performance in Chennai.
For a play often interpreted, even by intelligences like Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, Utpal Dutt and Habib Tanvir, what makes Supple's rendition special? Perhaps he sums up its basic premise best in the production brochure: "I worked with an extraordinary range of artists. We had sessions where realistic actors worked with dancers and folk artists worked with experimental physical performers. We had musicians, singers and children. And most interesting of all, people acted in whatever language was most natural to them. Dialogues sprung up between English and Bengali, Hindi and Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil and Sinhalese."
Supple adds, "It was clear that our production had to be multilingual: to restrict ourselves to performers who worked in English would be to miss out on a wealth of different ways of making theatre and telling stories of seeing life and our trials of love, terror and social conflict that make up the canvas of the play. It would also be a lie. India is multilingual, Indian theatre is multilingual and whatever else a Shakespearean play might do, it should seek to reflect the time and place in which it is made with vivid honesty."
That's essentially what sets this production apart. Its honest South Asian multiculturalism. Has that led to an exotic, export-oriented experience? Are there neo-colonial notes underpinning the venture?
Not if we tune in to the cast and crew, who resonate with total theatre. Joy Fernandes, who plays an irresistible Bottom, recalls the physical rigour of rehearsals. The result? Impeccable body interfaces and pacing. Perfect tableaux. Surcharged emotional exchanges. Chandan Roy Sanyal, who dons Lysander's role, says, "I couldn't quite understand this character, until Tim explained one day: `He's a poet, who's in love with the idea of being in love.' After that, it was much easier. I enjoyed doing some of Shakespeare with the lyrical sweetness of Bengali."
Looking back, Supple remembers weekly sessions where the cast grappled with a key issue: `What is the play all about?'
With mixed feedback from Indian audiences, even those stunned by the production's integrity and aesthetics now wonder: how will it be received at the Swan Theatre at Stratford? Will purists be up in arms? Sprightly Yuki Ellias, who plays Hermia, is unequivocal in her opinion: "They will love us."
That's the quintessential challenge as Supple and his well-honed ensemble do a reality check on whether all the world's their stage.
(The Hindu Business Line, 2006)