By William Shakespeare, with translations by the cast and others
Directed by Tim Supple
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Friday 16th June 2006
Like the Othello, I ask “Where do I start?” Unlike the Othello, this was one of the most wonderful productions I have seen in many a year. Not better than my favourite Dream, but spectacular nonetheless.
What impressed me most was how well the play’s emotions came across. The play was performed in seven different languages – English, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, and Marathi. The actors had been chosen at a massive audition festival in India; players with all sorts of backgrounds, including Indian folk theatre, contemporary acting, acrobatics, juggling, rope work, etc. came together to explore the play. Tim Supple, the director, chose the best actor for each part, and then basically used that actor’s main acting language for that character. Some spoke English, others almost exclusively another language, while some spoke several, and a few had to learn the English for some of their lines so that the story could be understood. In some cases, the most appropriate language was chosen, based on the sound. This helped to create the magical effect – so many rhythms, so much music in the performance. Again, some of the English lines took on a new emphasis with the different speech patterns.
The upshot was that I stopped trying to listen to the words so much – after all, I know this play pretty well, as did most of the audience. Instead, I could concentrate on watching the actors express the characters’ thoughts and emotions. I felt so liberated. Also, these actors seemed to project more emotion than I’m used to seeing on the stage. Maybe it’s the different culture (we Brits tend to be so buttoned up), and maybe it’s because they also had to deal with languages they didn’t understand. And from the post-show talk, I gather that it was a deliberate choice to beef up the violence and sex in the play. Anyway, I enjoyed the emotional ride enormously, and the cast thoroughly deserved their standing ovation at the end.
The stage seemed simple at the start, but evolved as time went on. At the back were sheets of white paper, with a door bottom right, and a platform projecting out from the back wall about eight feet up and about ten feet long, also covered in white paper. The floor was covered in red earth over which lay a silk sheet. At the front of the stage were two pools, on either side of a covered sculpture, and in front of these was a sand pit. The musicians were located in both side balconies.
At the start, Puck/Philostrate enters, grinning broadly, which he does throughout the performance. Taking in the audience, he walks to the front, removes the cover from the sculpture and reveals a stone block, smooth and shining, with parallel slices cut through it. Stepping over it, he squats down in the sandpit and cups water from each pool over the stone. Then he begins to stroke it rhythmically, and almost magically, it starts to sing – a beautiful note. At this, Theseus and Hippolyta enter to start the play proper.
Although Theseus mainly speaks in non-English tongues, the opening lines are in English, and it’s clear Hippolyta isn’t happy. And this is no slightly miffed English ice-Amazon, either – this one could throw things – a spear, perhaps, or at least a few plates. Fortunately, or perhaps not, Egeus arrives with his wayward daughter and two young men in tow. Didn’t understand a word, didn’t need to. A pretty little casket obviously held the trinkets Lysander had been “bribing” Hermia with, and the airs of dejection and defiance clearly delineated the two suitors. One lovely line was retained in the English – “You have her father’s love, Demetrius; Let me have Hermia’s: do you marry him.” Hermia spoke throughout in English, as did all the women, and Theseus explained her predicament in English – Hippolyta was even less happy. For a moment it looked like Hermia and Lysander weren’t going to be left alone at the end of the scene, but Theseus commands Egeus and Demetrius away, leaving them to converse, in English, about their plight. They make the usual arrangements, tell all to Helena (always a mistake, I feel), and then the play really hots up.
As Helena is leaving to blab to Demetrius, she is startled by Philostrate lurking by the door. Once she leaves, he removes the silk sheet to reveal the beaten earth, and with a tremendous ripping sound, the fairies arrive, thrusting and tearing their way through the paper sheets. The sheets were attached to wooden scaffolding, allowing the fairies to climb, swing, and slip away furtively, anything they want to do, in fact. Marvellous. Enter Puck (Philostrate without his robe, therefore pretty much naked except for a bright red loincloth – daring, but he had the figure to carry it off) and several other fairies, led by a young lady who carries much of the scene’s early dialogue. I particularly liked the way the long speeches about who the fairies think Puck is, are shared out amongst the four who turn out to be Titania’s main attendants. That way it wasn’t so boring. And Puck’s reply, equally as long, is spoken in Hindi, with much teasing and mock fighting with his stage audience – another relief from boredom. These fairies are definitely not to be messed with.
Enter Oberon and Titania (doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta), and they really have a go at each other. Rolling around in the dirt, it’s hard to tell if they’re having sex or fighting – very physical and much stronger than the usual distant sniping. These two have history. This scene was helped by the inclusion in the company of a nine-year-old boy from an acrobatic family, used to climbing, rope-work, etc. How they were able to have him on stage for so long I don’t know, but he was present a lot of the time with Titania, and later, Oberon, and made the cause of the quarrel very apparent – the Indian boy. At the end, a mad scramble away through the scaffolding and the fairies have disappeared, leaving Theseus to request the special little herb from his own personal messenger service, Puck. And then the lovers arrive.
For once, Helena and Demetrius look like they’ve been through hell already. Clothes torn, wild-eyed, Demetrius waves a nasty looking blade around while telling Helena to get lost. He really will kill Lysander given half a chance. And this wood is a really scary place. At the post-show, we were told the Indian performances had been conducted in the open air, with the cast having to contend with, amongst other things, jackals and bandits! This gave them and us a real sense of the forest being a very dangerous place.
The flower Puck brings is a lovely one, with several large blooms. In the centre of each one is a small red ball; crushed, it provides Theseus and Puck with red powder, which they smear over the eyes of those they put the spell on. Very effective, and the powder stays on for quite a while, being wiped off when the spell is removed, so it’s a clear reminder of what those naughty fairies have been up to. Anyway, Oberon’s off to punish Titania, and Puck’s off to sort out the “Athenian youth” – what could possibly go wrong?
Believe it or not, we don’t see the mechanicals until now. These are the hard-working men of Athens, gathering to arrange their performance for the marriage. Tom Snout, the tinker, carries a long pole with all the community’s spare cooking pans attached – this man would not sneak up on you unnoticed! When the clattering finally dies down, and the laughter, Quince gets on with it. Bottom was a lovely chap, Joy Fernandes, built like Tony Hancock but with a cheerful disposition. Flute, a tall, gangly youth, is not happy to be lumbered with the lady’s part. The others, older and wiser, are happy to settle for what they can get. A short scene, this, especially with the beards shaved off.
As Titania enters, we have another example of how Puck/Philostrate is orchestrating things. While the mechanicals leave, various ropes and ribbons are lowered to the stage, with Puck, still grinning, releasing them all from their guide ropes. By the time the fairies are ready to sing Titania to sleep, they all have ropes to climb up and dance with. Titania herself makes a cosy nest out of two long red ribbons of cloth, and tucks herself up in it, pulling in the trailing cloth, closing the ribbons up like the bud of a flower. Her nest is then lifted up above the action, and she is beautifully concealed from prying eyes.
Some of the ropes are then removed, but there are more ribbons available for Hermia and Lysander to knot together and rest on. Again, it almost looks like Lysander is going to ignore maidenly modesty, but Hermia’s no pushover, and he backs off. All the rest unfolds as usual, and off everyone goes.
So then Puck and the other company fairies (not the queen’s supporters as such), take away the ropes and bring on the scenery for the mechanicals rehearsal. It was a lovely idea, to have these fairies standing around, holding up various items – banana leaves, wattle screens, etc. – and watching the developing events with amazement and great humour. Worth mentioning was Flute’s totally disenchanted rendition of Thisbe’s lines – no feeling whatsoever, this actor just wanted to be off stage as quickly as possible. Also, no use of “Ninny’s tomb” – possibly doesn’t work so well when there are so many accents and languages being used.
No holds barred in this production so far, so it comes as no surprise that Bottom’s ass’s accoutrements are not only prominent, but completed by a largish gourd hanging from his waist. Nice touch. Exeunt mechanicals, awaken Titania, etc.
The lovers are next up, and with Demetrius’ eyes smeared red as well, both men now pursue Helena. At this point, I found Puck’s interventions a bit distracting. He set up some poles round the outside of the stage, and then started winding elastic rope around and between them, creating a cat’s cradle through which the lovers interacted. This represented very well the difficulties the lovers are dealing with – the dense forest, people holding one another back – but I found it hard to block Puck out of the picture, as this is only a small stage. It might have been OK if there were only a couple of rolls of elastic, but he got through four of them! It took the whole scene to unravel them (and it’s a long scene), and by then I’d lost track of the lovers altogether. A shame, because I’m sure they were performing valiantly through the elastic. With the stage so snarled up, there was nothing else for it but to have the interval here, so Puck leads the lovers into the scaffolding, and leaves them all asleep, removing the red dust from Lysander’s eyes. Ah.
The next scene is the removal of the spell from Titania. This was beautifully done. She and Bottom are sprawled in the ribbon nest, and Oberon, who has been observing from the platform, does some rope work to come down to earth, while the Indian boy follows part way. Oberon cleans Titania up, and she awakens, horrified at what she sees. Bottom is moved to the back of the stage, lying down, and Puck removes his ‘appendages’.
Now at this point, Titania and Oberon leave the stage, and Theseus and Hippolyta enter. Normally, when doubling occurs, Bottom’s awakening gives the poor actors a bit of time to make the changeover. Not here. Both actors stay on stage, and the fairy attendants bring on their outer robes, which are all that distinguish the characters, and dress them there and then. Another beautiful element in the production – to have the faith that the audience can handle it and will go along with it, which of course we did, most happily.
After Bottom’s recovery, and reunion with the rest of his troupe, Philostrate sets up the cushioned areas for the aristocrats to sit and watch the evening’s entertainment. These final scenes are mostly in English; I gather it was difficult to translate, and we would have missed a lot of the jokes.
The Pyramus and Thisbe was very enjoyable. Wall was literally covered in plaster, and carried a pipe across his shoulders, to represent the chink in the wall the lovers talked through. The blood was represented by red cloth, and the whole scene was amusing. It was followed by the bergomask – given the emphasis on movement and dance in this production, this was a lively affair. The drummer was on stage throughout the play and dance.
Finally, the whole cast was on stage for the house blessing, moving slowly and rhythmically, forwards and backwards. Again, beautiful, and hypnotic. With Puck’s prologue rounding it off, still with that mischievous grin, we were completely satisfied, and the ovation was just wonderful. It was an honour to be present there that night, and experience that performance. They deserved all the applause and more.
Post-show: As if the performance wasn’t enough, these amazing people came back a short while later to do a post-show discussion. Tim Supple, the director, was there, too. It was lovely to see how the cast interacted. They developed into two groups, with a few actors acting as translators for the rest. They spoke about the rehearsal process, which challenged them all to explore new areas and built a great sense of trust in the company. There were several translations ready prepared when they arrived, and the dialogue evolved in the course of rehearsals, as languages were tried and changed and refined. The lovely singing when Titania is being serenaded to sleep, started out as “You spotted snakes” etc., and then evolved into a glorious lullaby in whatever language gave it the right rhythm and feel. Puck (Ajay Kumar), still grinning, told us via translation how he had no previous experience of Shakespeare, and was really pleased to find it so enjoyable to do. He had to learn the English for a lot of his part, and also contributed to the translation of the Hindi lines – all the translations were adjusted as they went along. When asked how the cast had worked together with so many different languages, Tim pointed out that we could see the process in action, as two actors translated for the rest of the company – there was a lovely ripple effect as jokes were translated back and forth during the discussion.
More was said that I don’t remember, I just enjoyed so much being there while the happiness generated by the performance permeated everything. A real blessing.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me