Tim Supple's subcontinent-inspired production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (engaged at Toronto's Luminato Festival of the Arts 2008) is colorful, acrobatic and entirely liberating, although it also presents significant challenges.
Supple casts his Midsummer entirely in Mumbai, India with cast and crew coming from all over India and Sri Lanka, bringing with them a mélange of acting styles and native languages. Instead of forcing his actors to speak Shakespearean English throughout, Supple instead gave them the freedom to revert to their native (or any other) language they were comfortable speaking, if and when it was deemed appropriate, with the caveat that all language would adhere to the original through careful and discerning translation. The result is that one character may speak only in English, others primarily in Hindi or Punjabi, or any one of a host of languages common to the Indian sub-continent. In some cases, a character may even begin a speech in one language and switch halfway through to another, finding the language which best expresses the emotional thrust of the text.
Now granted, this technique is not easy to follow along, and I expect that viewers less familiar with the text might be completely alienated by it. Others will find the experience is akin to seeing a favorite opera production where the sur-titles only show sporadically. One knows the story well enough to follow along, and it’s easy enough to recognize the highlights whether they’re in English or not. The end result is entirely liberating. Rather than being pinned to the language and the insistent iambic pentameter, speeches are suddenly converted into entirely new creatures. Even the original text becomes freed from standard rhythms when spoken by those for whom English is not a native tongue.
This sort of linguistic integration is not new to Shakespeare productions in India, most notably in Roysten Abel’s film In Othello, based on his stage play by the same name. In Abel’s film, the line between reality and theatre become blurred (à la A Double Life) during a mixed language production of Othello. Various plays have been appropriated and adapted into a wide range of native Indian tongues, including the Hindi Angoor (based on A Comedy of Errors), the Urdu and Hindi Maqbool (Macbeth), and countless Bollywood versions, not to mention Shakespeare Wallah, the classic Merchant-Ivory tale of Shakespearean actors trying to adapt to a world in which British rule is rapidly becoming unacceptable. In a country characterized by multi lingualism, what better way to adapt Shakespeare to your native culture than to re-create the text with the rhythms and complexity of your native languages?
Granted, the language issue is a difficult one, and I can certainly understand how others may be less enthralled by it than I. But equally liberating is the sheer physicality of the production, which makes full use of the stage space with a creativity I have never seen before. The action does not move simply back and forth across the stage; it climbs the bamboo ladder grid upstage and dangles from every inch of free space above the stage. The action is physical and acrobatic, infusing every moment with a visual carnival of color and motion, often integrating traditional elements of Indian regional acting styles, music and dance. That said, I the acting is somewhat inconsistent. The charming and devilish Puck (Ajay Kumar) struts across the stage, mugging to the audience, even when it is not quite clear why he is there. Bottom the Weaver, played with great aplomb by the bearish Joy Fernandes, seems to be slightly off the rhythm of the rest of the play for reasons I cannot pinpoint, and I should say my discomfort has nothing to do with the penile gourd he sports with his donkey head (more on that point anon). Both of the girls, Shanaya Rafaat as Helena and Yuki Ellias as Hermia, bring a rare power and vitality to these roles, which often suffer from an overbearing sweetness in Western productions.
And finally, there is the sex. The entire production is played out with an unassuming looking black pillar placed downstage, center. For the uninitiated, this is a large black lingam, a phallic pillar with an ancient history tied to Indian and Asian religions to the beginning of human history. This one in particular is quite unassuming – a black pillar of sorts, with no phallic decorations or attributes to offend the Western audience. Nevertheless, it serves the important purpose of consecrating the production to the gods of sex and sexuality (Puck does this by rubbing water on the pillar and performing a rite of dedication at the start of the play), which to me seems an entirely appropriate and brilliant way to associate the text with Indian culture. The lingam remains front and center throughout the entire show, as a constant reminder that A Midsummer’s Night Dream is, ultimately, about love. I find it fascinating that others should read rape where I read raw sexuality. My problem with those instances had less to do with the apparent violence of, say, Lysander advancing on Helena. Rather, I was confused by the women’s reactions, which seemed to me to be a bit too willing, given the context of the play. Similarly, Bottom’s reddened “phallus,” a symbolic gourd worn at the waist, is an organic and appropriate reminder of the sexuality to which the production is dedicated.
Apart from some minor inconsistencies in the performances, this production is a welcome and highly energizing experience. If you need your Shakespeare to be packaged in flouncy shirts and ruffled collars, then do yourself a favor and stay home. If, on the other hand, you are tired of cute fairies and superficially imposed innocence, then this production is the perfect way to wipe the slate clean and reinvigorate your concept of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be.