April 28, 2006
It was a midsummer night. A sultry midsummer night. The air was pierced with loud drumbeats and human screeching. The lights flickered, in a bluish, night glow. People moved with great speed, some half naked, some fully dressed, some resplendent, some stark. They ran, the danced, they climbed, they swung from ropes, they were lulled into uneasy sleep in huge cloth cradles hung from the top. Was this a dream or perhaps a Nightmare... In any case, the twenty first century dreams are more like nightmares.
They always end up as nightmares. So, it could be something which started as a dream and ended as a nightmare. Well, when you wake up and try to reconstruct the dream, many thoughts emerge, some pleasant, some unpleasant, some remarkable, some avoidable. Like a dream, it is pleasant and unpleasant, it is exciting and dull, in short it is a mixture of feelings that assails one's consciousness when one wakes up from a dream.
That is what this writer felt after watching "A Midsummer Night's Dream" directed by Tim Supple and produced by the British Council and Hutch. Usually when I write a review after watching a play, I start my comments with the script, go on to the technique of presentation (direction), quality of acting and then end up with some casual comments on stage, sets and props, lights and costumes. But, in this case I would like to use the reverse approach and start with the sets and props, lights, costumes, music (which in the normal sense of theatre reviewing can only be treated as "enhancing factors" to the theatrical presentation) and then go on to the more serious aspects such as script, direction and acting (which I consider as the essence of theatre).
The reason for this approach is that the most stunning or absolutely breathtaking feature of this play, were the sets, lights and costumes in that order. Literally and truly the stage provided the direction and guidance for the actors and their actions. It was not just a backdrop or a space to perform, but an instigator and a promoter in the structure and acting. In fact, without the stage as it was constructed, the actors could not have performed many of the feats that they did. I do not know whether the experimental nature of the play called for the kind of stage that was provided or the stage in many ways offered the scope for the kind of acting and action that was showcased. In any case, as far as this play goes, the stage was not merely a stage, but a supporting actor.
What appealed to me about this stage was that it was deceptively simple and yet, elegant, impressionistic, minimal and sturdy. It was practical also, in as much as it allowed the actors to move freely and do all the acrobatics and rope tricks (for there was a lot of all that in this play) without hindering the flow of the play. The spaces, the foreground, the background and the sides were all clearly defined and uncluttered. Yet, it never overwhelmed or overtook the actors at any time. It remained a stage, solid yet providing a fragile and dreamlike quality, impressionistic, an abstract vision capturing the details of a city or a forest through the movements, elevations and gaps behind which mysteries lurked, never imitating either spaces as they appear in real life, using realistic sets or props. The backdrop was a wooden screen (construction) made out of bamboo with many squares covered with ordinary white paper that can be torn easily. The actors entered through these squares, tearing the paper, removing it for the second half of the play and once again pasting some more paper for the next day's production. So, it was a living stage, destroyed to some extent every day and then reconstructed the next day. It reminded me of some of the ritualistic dances of Kerala where the "Kalam" or the floral design depicting the deity is erased after every performance and then redrawn for the next performance. It enhanced the shift from the forest where the dream takes place to the city where reality emerges. The main stage was covered in red soil which along with the wooden construction brought out an extraordinary texture to the space. In short, the stage played its part so well that it was a breathtaking experience to watch the imagination that conceived it and the hands that crafted it. Sets designer, Sumant Jayakrishnan deserves praise for his imagination, skill and perhaps audacity (!) for creating such a modern as well as impressionistic stage. The costumes designed by him also were unusual, elegant and understated. They had elements giving a glimpse of the period of the original play and the context in which it has been represented. However, the costumes did not convey the same impressionistic imagination that the stage and sets revealed.
The lights grid was an awesome sight with nearly two hundred and thirty lights. But, due to some glitch in the operation of the lights, the effects produced by the lights were not as stunning as that of the sets and props. Two remarkable scenes where the lights played an important part were – one just before the interval, the night scene in the forest, and the other the arrival of dawn in the forest after the nights events. If properly managed, the lights could have provided a more breathtaking effect.
Music designed by the well known music director Devissaro was adequate. However, the constant drum beats heralding any important or dramatic event proved to be noisy, attention seeking, stereotypical and clichéd. The songs, especially the lullaby song was very appealing. The song at the very end of the play was again stereotypical and clichéd.
The script with translations of passages in seven languages – Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Sinhalese and English was done with good intentions – to give representation to the variety of languages in India and Srilanka as well as emphasizing the importance of the act of "translation" in bringing Shakespeare to a greater number of audiences. Says Ananda Lal in his introductory article in the brochure provided by the British Council, "The Dream is all about translation, in the old sense of metamorphosis.
Helena is prepared to give the world to be translated into Hermia; Puck declares that he has translated "Pyramus"; and the most familiar line in this vein Bottom's colleagues tell him, aghast, "thou art translated." The idea is very appealing provided the translations do not pose a problem for the actor and the audience and the transference from one language to the other is done smoothly either through the texture of language used or through the substitution of it through action, sets, body language, emotions etc. This did happen in the case of the Hindi translation. So, to that extent it is a success. However, in Malayalam where the "sanskritised" Malayalam is used for the greater part and the rhyming of verses is achieved at times using Malayalam words and phrases in a gawky and unnatural manner, the actor (especially Oberon) found it very difficult to get the right emphases and punctuations in the recital. The actors like Oberon/Titania and the lover pair were concentrating on getting the recital correct that the acting/emoting were forgotten. As a result the acting became "artificial", "monotone" and therefore "stilted." This apart, I do question the need to use languages which cannot be understood by the audiences in a play where the "word" plays a significant role. If it is being deliberately used as a device, probably "gibberish" (containing a mixture of all languages and intonations and dialects specific to each language) would have been better. Tim Supple's explanation that he did not want to have his actors exclusively from the English speaking lot and therefore the use of many languages in the script was essential is a reasonable one.
If the sheer acting was of a superior quality all these hurdles could have been overcome; no one would even have noticed the difficulty to follow the languages used or felt the nostalgia for Shakespeare's own words. But, this is where the play has failed to a very great extent. Excepting the mechanics or Bottom's group who did a superb, natural and spontaneous kind of acting, the main actors, Theseus/Hipployta, Oberon/Titania and the lover pair were for most of the time mechanically reciting their lines. They did not emote or through their body language express the required actor/character transformations. The expressions remained superficial, outward and therefore "artificial". In fact, while the sets, lights and music succeeded in depicting the difference between the opulent/ordinary city dynamics to the mysterious, other worldly, supernatural world of the forest and the fairies very well, the same cannot be said of the actors, whose words and actions failed to achieve the transformation.
The other shortcoming of the play is that it did not bring in the political nuances of the play to the forefront and restricted the interpretation to a direct manner of storytelling using various devices.
As an experiment, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is remarkable in the sense that it used some of the good theatrical devices and dared to initiate a multi-lingual, multi-cultural script and structure to the play, using various elements such as martial arts, dance, rope tricks and songs. However, acting, which is the essence of all theatre, lacked the vitality and mercurial and transformative energies required by this kind of a production. Maybe, it will with more practice and productions, overcome this shortcoming and emerge as a stronger and really experimental play.