This January, the Indian theatre audience, yet again, revisited the spectacularly unique production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, directed by British director Tim Supple. During the course of 2007, this play was a resounding success with sell-out performances in India and the U.K. This month, it performed again in Indian metros before taking-off on a world tour to create waves globally.
The play is astounding in its seamless depiction of the Shakespearean text through regional Indian languages. These range from Malayalam, Sinhalese, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, English, Hindi and even some Sanskrit. It brings together twenty three performers, from all over India and Sri Lanka. The story is brought forward through their skills in acting, dancing, martial arts and acrobatics. The result is a never-seen-before visual treat.
The production follows the storyline faithfully, albeit with some unique interpretations. We had the privilege to speak to Mr. Supple after the play. He gave us some interesting insights into the whole process of putting the play together. The first, and the most obvious question, was of course an enquiry into his inspiration. He told us that the British Council had invited him to work in India with Indian actors. While traveling in the country, he saw different Indian plays, different actors playing various roles, the spectacle in Indian theatre, the Indian tradition of acrobats and martial arts such as the ‘keleri paitu’. He was inspired by what he saw, and this current production is a spontaneous reaction to these arts.
This play especially fits the bill because of its undefined dream-like quality and supernatural nature, giving flight to one’s imagination. In fact, the director calls it a collaboration between the stylization of Indian traditions and the more mimetic British theatre that he has grown up with. According to him, it is a “collaboration of two instincts of theatre”. We asked, if making such a blend of two different theatrical styles was difficult. He replied that it was spontaneous and instinctive, as this amalgamation is what Shakespeare actually stood for.
As D.U. literature students we were a bit apprehensive about watching Shakespeare’s play in six Indian languages. Besides, we felt how would people understand? And wasn’t there a risk in using these languages? We made a point of asking Mr. Supple about this unusual decision. His instant reply was that no one person speaks them all. But strangely enough that never worried him. A strange mixture of languages was blended with the dream motif of the play. It was especially important for him that the actors spoke in languages they were comfortable in. There was an added emphasis on body language. For him, body language is all important and that wouldn’t have changed even if the play was entirely in English. Actors have a way of communicating the truth and that includes using their body. Ultimately theater is not about language alone.
Mr. Supple’s confidence in his actors is not unfounded. Their showmanship was undeniable. Each brought out the various levels that are part and parcel of Shakespeare’s characters; from the sexual undertones, the subtle and crass humour to the gender wars. All of these actors performed while balancing themselves on ropes, ladders and cloth. Being able to speak loudly while vaulting and hanging upside down itself bears testimony to their skills, dedication and hard work. Each character suited the role perfectly. The different languages rolled-off their tongues effortlessly. Imagine our surprise when we were told that quite a few of the regular actors had been unavailable for the show and thus, their roles were being performed by others.
We asked the director about this last minute change in the cast and whether it had been tough. However, he informed us that such substitutions need not always be disastrous as each actor was trained to cover up for other roles. However, it is still impressive how the man who brought the roof down as the cocky fool ‘Nick Bottom’ was only a substitute for the regular actor.
One curious point in the play was the switch between the characters of ‘Oberon’ and ‘Theseus’, and ‘Titania’ and ‘Hippolyta’, by the same pair of actors on stage. We asked Mr. Supple as to why he had shown the transformation to the audience. He said it was because he believed the fairy king and queen to be the dream versions of the ‘Theseus’ and ‘Hippolyta’. The onstage costume change was necessary to show that the two couples were alter egos of one another. This again fits into the play which has so many transformations; a foolish Bottom into an ass, love into hate and then back into love and others. In fact Tim Supple’s entire acrobatic and animalistic adaptation of the play raised a lot of questions. However, he insisted that it was all part of the script.
The play was his rendition of the woodland creatures and he portrayed the truth of the forest as he saw it. His thought process found quite a few takers in the audience. One viewer remarked that it was an interesting take on human beings. When they are out of the society and their clothes they do become animalistic. Personally, for me, it was a breather from the stately elves that have become all pervasive since Tolkien.
Mr. Supple’s use of props was in the form of a whole new vocabulary. He said that the props were developed according to the need of the play. He seems to have been highly inventive in his usage. There is an element of ‘resourceful playfulness’ and he has tried to give the audience an imaginative tool to play with. Needless to say, he succeeded. The backdrop of torn paper, red curtains white tape indicating mist and confusion drew ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from college and school students.
Our final question to him was about the process of putting together such a diverse cast and crew from two countries. He told us that it took him six months. He toured the countries and personally handpicked them through extensive, rigorous workshops and auditions.
Tim Supple’s dedication to his art is clearly evident. Even while speaking to college students like us, his passion showed on his face. His production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ has won him the TMA (Theatrical Management Association) award for Best Director of a touring production along with nomination for the London Evening Standard Awards for Best Director. The skeptical college students and awed school students gave the play a standing ovation. This play, which is in Indian languages, Athenian background, and pan-Indian costumes, brought Shakespeare alive not just for those familiar with his work, but complete novices too. It combines love triangles, opposing parents, fights, songs and dances, humour, fairies and a gender battle, and that is what Shakespeare ultimately was, an entertainer for one and all. Tim Supple certainly lives up to that tradition.
With inputs by Pallavi Banerjee and Indrani Basu