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Monday, March 5, 2007

Together, the French devotee and her Indian guru represent a mystic union of East and West

In his wildest dream Tim Supple’s thrilling pan-Indian Shakespeare caused raptures in Stratford last year. Lucy Powell watches it work its magic on audiences on the sub-continent prior to its London opening From The Sunday Times March 04, 2007
A curiously apt Oberon and Titania silently oversee proceedings at the Adishakti ashram in Auroville. In what Shakespeare calls the “spiced Indian air” of deepest Tamil Nadu, rerehearsals for Tim Supple’s multilingual A Mid-summerNight’sDream are in full swing. Half the cast dangle above the stage on ropes or perch precariously on a bamboo scaffold that forms the skeleton of the set.
The earthbound contingent of the 23-strong cast, brought together from the four corners of the sub-continent, are working on Act III. The rude mechanicals avidly rehearse their production of Pyra-mus and Thisbe, when Puck transforms their finest actor into an ass. “Bless thee, Bottom,” cries Peter Quince, “thou art translated.” Indeed he is — in this instance, into Hindi — but the meaning of the line couldn’t be clearer, with a quivering Quince paying considerably less attention to Bottom’s new donkey’s ears than to the giant protuberance, in the form of a large aubergine, that dangles louchely between his legs.
In all, Supple’s production uses seven languages, with roughly half the play performed in English. Oberon wields power in Malayalam, Puck wreaks havoc in Hindi (and a fetching pair of underpants) and Lysander and Demetrius chase tails through the forests in Bengali and Sinhalese.
As the cast do some particularly hair-raising warm-up exercises, an ashram worker refills the oil lamps illuminating the two outsized sacred portraits that bless the rehearsal space. Images of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo are omnipresent in Auroville, a spiritual city of nearly 2,000 inhabitants, inaugurated in 1968. Together, the French devotee and her Indian guru represent a mystic union of East and West, traditional spirituality and futuristic practicality — precisely the kind of harmonious, progressive coupling Supple has sought to create with his production, which arrives in London on Thursday.
The response to its English premiere at the Swan, in Stratford-upon-Avon, last June, where it ran briefly as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, promises a rapturous reception for the rerun.
One critic described it as a “sensation”, the most life-enhancing production of the play since Peter Brook’s in 1970; another predicted that it would be talked about for decades, calling for its return to Britain as a matter of urgency.
The project was the brain-child of the British Council offices in India and Sri Lanka. Supple recalls: “Some people were worried about the multi-lingualism, about my cherry-picking bits of India, about whether it was too radical, or not radical enough, with the text. Generally, it felt as if there was a lot riding on it.” A pan-Indian, multilingual production had not been attempted on this scale before. There was also resistance to the imperialistic overtones of uniting India through Shakespeare. During the Raj, the Bard was a staple of the Indian education system, primarily as a language-teaching tool. The first recorded staging of his work (probably of Othello) occurred in Mumbai in 1770, with English actors performing for a purely colonial audience. But India quickly adopted Shakespeare for her own ends. As early as 1852, a Gujarati version of The Taming of the Shrew was performed. Its title alluringly translates as “How a bad Firangee [European] woman was brought to her senses”.
Shakespeare’s popularity dipped considerably during the Free India movement, however, and in the postindependence period of the 1950s and 1960s. Supple was sensitive to the issue, but not unduly concerned: “It quickly became clear that I wasn’t interested in having Indian actors ape British versions of Shakespeare, which would perhaps be a colonial idea. Neither did I want performers to come on and do their shtick, fire-eating or whatever, which would make a pretty boring piece of cultural exotica. I wanted to create a good, honest piece of real theatre. That’s an awful lot to achieve.”
On opening night in Delhi, in May 2006, the audience gave the production a standing ovation. In Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata, the response was, if anything, increasingly effusive. “I knew it would go even better in the UK,” says Supple, “freed of all those cultural concerns. For a British audience, there are essentially two languages on stage: English and not.” If he could convey the Dream’s meaning to audiences all over India, none of whom would be able to follow all seven languages on stage, he knew it would be possible to do so in Stratford-upon-Avon.
“A Shakespeare production should seek to reflect the time and place in which it is made with vivid honesty,” Supple said at the time. Today, he concludes that if his Dream succeeded, it is because he was able to stay true to that intention. The impeccably detailed mechanicals effortlessly evoke images of India’s street traders. The issue of a man wanting to marry his daughter where her heart has no desire to go still lives and breathes in contemporary India, as does the accepted presence of a potent spirit world. From the folk dances that rub shoulders with ancient martial arts and classical dance steps to the blinding colours of Sumant Jayakrishnan’s elemental set, this is a production steeped in the infinite variety of its Indian context.
The performers were cast after an intensive, month-long audition process that took Supple “from the slums of Delhi to the jungles outside Kolkota”. All agree that Supple required them to work way beyond their normal performance range. For PR Jijoy, the Keralan mime and martial-arts expert who plays Oberon and Theseus, the journey was primarily about the text. “At times, I felt like the rude mechanicals,” he says bashfully. For Joy Fer-nandes, an English-literature graduate who plays a poised and deeply serious Bottom, it concerned movement. “I was a straight actor,” he says, “so it was a challenge for me to find the physical dimension Tim needed. We’ve all had to learn new skills. Nobody knew ropework before we started, but now, watching the fairies whirling in the air, you would think they’d done it all their lives.”
A keynote of the production is its raw, explosive sensuality, one element that is far from visible in contemporary India. Interestingly, all four women in the cast hail from the bustling megatropolis of Mumbai, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens at the Roundhouse, NW1, on Thursday none of them expressed reservations about their performance: “You know, we wrote the Kama Sutra,” says Archana Ramaswamy, a classically trained dancer, who plays Titania and Hippolyta. “And in our temples, you see half-naked statues everywhere.” True, but in the temple nearest to Adishakti, all are modestly draped in saris.
Supple retorts definitively: “You could find that tension between eroticism and moral restraint in every culture you set the play in. It’s just that these actors express it better.” When asked why that might be, he shrugs: “Convention, ego, the way the profession is set up, strict working hours — it’s hard to put a finger on, but the way I work here is the way I want to work with actors from now on.” He concedes that directing in India has its challenges. “Text, characterisation, realism: those things aren’t there in the same way. But there’s a wealth of skill and artistry, coupled with this bursting, vibrant ability to connect that is so hard to find in the West. I discovered I’m much happier working this way around.” The 44-year-old former artistic director of the Young Vic has international theatre projects on his horizons that will take him from North Africa to Arabia, China, South America, Israel and Palestine. In each case, he will seek to reflect the culture he finds himself in with vibrant honesty.
In his Indian Dream, with its prodigious, heady admixture of tradition and experimentation, East and West, the soaringly airborne and the determinedly earthbound, Supple has done just that. But India, as Fernandes so presciently puts it, will always evade any attempt to define it. “What is India? Does anybody know? Anyone who says India is this or India is that is talking a lot of balderdash. Nobody, but nobody, knows India.” All we can do, he concludes genially, with the help of Shakespeare, Supple and “this wondrous motley cast”, is dream it for a while.

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