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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Multicultural, Multilingual Feat
by Nirmala Nataraj on May 16, 2008
The South Asian production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that is currently enjoying a run at the Curran Theatre seethes with the mischief and irrepressible sensuality that the Bard perhaps originally intended. This gorgeously hybridized, ingeniously rendered production is Shakespeare as you’ve never seen him before -- unloosed of the priggish, perfectly enunciated Queen’s English that tends to preclude any iota of visceral beauty and theatrical velocity.
Director Tim Supple, of the UK’s Dash Arts, foregoes genteel pretensions and infuses the play with all the sex, violence, madness, and brutal beauty that you’ll find in “Midsummer” if you’re not afraid to plunge off the highbrow pedestal and into this challenging polyglot reading of the perennial classic. Supple’s production, in its multi-faceted, turn-your-limbs-to-mush, propulsive beauty, is perhaps one of the most tantalizing incarnations of “Midsummer” to come out of either the Occident or Orient in the last decade. Anyone expecting a traditional rendering should be forewarned before they even read the playbill. Yes, this is a production full of blatant misappropriation and unabashed linguistic hijacking…blah blah blah.
The production, devised in 2005 and first staged in 2006 for the British Council in India, is a mishmash of Shakespearean English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Sinhalese, Sanskrit, and a medley of other subcontinental tongues, all melded in a flurry of incantatory magic. While purists (who probably aren’t aware that there’s nothing simple and pure about any Shakespeare staging, whether it’s delivered in English or gilded supertitles) might pooh-pooh over their inability to make out what’s going on, there is something seductive about the fact that the actors code-switch from one language to the next without so much as an eye blink. The heterogeneity of Indian culture, wedded to the characters’ utter inability to communicate coherently with one another, accentuates the beauty and poetry of Shakespeare’s mad vision.
“Midsummer” is basically composed of a triad of stories, framed by the marriage of Theseus, duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. This conjoining of opposites (i.e., primitive to civilized, rational masculinity to unrestrained, passionate femininity) is the perfect framework for the other plots; a pair of lovers marked by unrequited longing and another pair forbidden to wed, who take to the woods to flee their destinies, are stymied by acolytes of the fairy kingdom, while the fairy monarchs Oberon and Titania attend to their own on-the-rocks nuptial state.
Magic love potions, labyrinthine plot twists, and plays within plays all signify the liminal realm in which “Midsummer” largely takes place -- one in which it should come as no surprise that characters are able to seamlessly navigate between languages and worlds, much to monolingual viewers’ chagrin. Additionally, the storyline of arranged marriages, patriarchal tyranny, and id-generated terrains full of unfettered sexuality, seems a little archaic when we take it on its own terms, but given the Indian schism between modern definitions of love and social dictates, the production is rendered with far more gravity than a frivolous Bollywood flick.
Naysayers might argue that if the language is bastardized and tampered with, it’s really no longer Shakespeare, but this is a play that is so suffused with the beauty, sensuality, eroticism, and lyricism of the Bard that it’s ludicrous to insist that the meat and substance of “Midsummer” is in vernacular alone. Certainly, those unfamiliar with the play may want to prep themselves beforehand, but it’s really not necessary to know the story if you’re equipped with an agile mind. Unlike the stuffed-shirt, classically biased productions staged by college theatre troupes and respected repertories alike, this “Midsummer” doesn’t need to fall back on linguistic conventions.
In fact, getting to the spirit of the play isn’t dependent on language at all—you can simply rely on the near-animalistic precision of the martial folk dances (devised beautifully by choreographers D. Padmakumar and M. Palani), pay close attention to the gestural subtleties of the actors, or listen to the exultant notes of musical director Devissaro’s string and percussion instruments. In essence, the poetry of Shakespeare is easily transposed with the poetry of sheer movement and emotion, something that few renditions are able to achieve. The otherworldliness of the play is similarly realized through Supple’s breathtaking interludes of aerial dance, martial acrobatics, and rope climbing.
Designer Sumant Jayakrishnan’s multi-tiered bamboo set, festooned with fabrics that sway and ripple as characters peer through, is beautifully accented by Zuleikha Chaudhari’s voluptuous lighting, which beams down more hues than an Indian marriage procession. The acting -- when and if you’re capable of reading between the lines -- is equally gorgeous, and the ensemble easily navigates between bombast and pathos, comedy and tragedy, lunacy and limpidity. Standouts include Ajaykumar “Geetarjun", who plays Puck, equipped with nothing more than an infectious grin, a loincloth, a Mohawk, and a predilection for physical antics. Joy Fernandes is equally delightful as fairy queen Titania’s momentary love interest, Bottom -- especially in his brazen, braying incarnation as a donkey, complete with a codpiece-turned-dildo.
Moments of unabashed eroticism abound in the play, particularly in the stirring sequences between brisk and lusty Titania (played by the eloquent, fluid Archana Ramaswamy) and wild-haired, hazardously sexy fairy king Oberon (played by J. Jayakumar…who’s waxing poetic in Tamil, not gibberish, as the lady sitting next to me seemed to think). The wonderful thing about this production is that it doesn’t spare ADD-addled audiences the luxury of an abbreviated story—even in its wild translation, it whirls through the tale with unerring loyalty to Shakespeare’s gorgeous, byzantine play.
Love as madness is an eastern paradigm that was in circulation long before the English language’s lyrical heyday, so the vital revision isn’t really so much of a stretch. All the same, on opening night, nearly half of the audience was missing post-intermission. Perhaps the lack of an easily recognizable iambic pentameter (save in those spared mouthfuls of verse recited in English) dissuaded many viewers, but I couldn’t help but suspect that the mass exodus was rooted in something far more insidious. It is truly rare that even the most progressive audiences will allow themselves to be challenged by live theatre, and when the very supremacy of the English language is called into question, modern western viewers may find themselves writhing with discomfort that’s best assuaged by calling it quits.
While the production may have benefited from a smaller space or one in which the acoustics were kinder to ears untrained by foreign accents, it is fascinating to note that this radical reimagining of Shakespeare was devised in a nation once unremittingly colonized by the English language and its people. The mere attempt of a group of people once tyrannized by the ugly behemoth of Empire to untangle the textual intricacies of Britain’s paramount lyricist is a fascinating feat on multiple levels.
And it makes sense, given that anything is fair game in the post-colonial world of myriad tongues and theatrical devices. Language aside, perhaps where “Midsummer” succeeds most is in the manner it teases and beguiles, giving us enough of an equivalency between the fairy world and the messy affairs of human love so that we are prompted to keep watching -- even as it tempers its familiarity with a foreignness, a divergence from the familiar, that has the power to transform us if we’re willing to be discomfited and stay until curtain call.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
at Curran Theatre
runs through June 1st
tickets are $35-80
by Nirmala Nataraj on May 16, 2008