A Midsummer Night's Dream
Dash Arts in association with The British Council
Fresh from a wonderful Russian Twelfth Night and with the mouth-watering prospect of Yukio Ninagawa's Japanese Titus Andronicus and the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg's King Lear still to come this year, this terrific Indian staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests that when it comes to putting on Shakespeare, Blighty may no longer be first-choice for delivering big thrills.
Putting together this production, which features actors drawn from across the sub-continent, seven dialects and English, and a range of theatrical disciplines, is an impressive achievement in itself. But for director Tim Supple and team to triumph in the face of all the difficulties is an extraordinary achievement. The only regret is that this Dream runs for just twelve performances at the Swan Theatre.
One of the characteristics which immediately sets this production apart from home-grown fare is an intense physicality. By this, I don't mean the stick fights and acrobatics, but the sense of lust which stalks the forest. Oberon and Titania wrestle and writhe on the ground, only partly in anger; Hermia fights off Demetrius' advances which verge on rapine. Bottom, transformed into an ass, sports a sizeable aubergine between his legs and as for Helena, no wonder Lysander is petrified, poor boy.
Already this Dream has drawn breathless comparisons with Peter Brook's legendary 1970 RSC staging and it's not hard to see why. The staging is similarly spartan, the action taking place on a bare stage before what appears to be a gigantic patchwork sail. Members of the cast gather; sing an invocation, before a grinning Puck, ritually rubs a ceremonial stone, thus setting the magic free.
Cue the first of a series of theatrical coups which light up the evening: the 'sail' quivers and then is torn apart as a troupe of fairies, anything but fey, clamber through what is revealed to be paper, slithering and clambering over a massive lattice bamboo frame. It as if a thin membrane only serves to divide the material from the supernatural world and this has now been torn asunder.
What follows is full of the sense of magic which marks out great Dreams, but we are left in no doubt that this spirit world is far from benign. Puck, in particular, is pregnant with joyous mischief, revelling in the four young lovers' confusion as he scampers among them, creating a giant spiders' web out of tape, through which they are forced to climb, over and under, with increasing difficulty.
Earlier, the world of the court, which Hermia and Lysander have flown, could not have stood in starker contrast. It is authoritarian and deeply hierarchical, the Indian setting with its tradition of arranged marriages, making complete sense of the wrath of Hermia's father at her defiance and of the harsh punishment Theseus warns will be meted out unless she is correspondent to command.
The wildness, verging on frenzy, which ensues, is like a bursting forth of unlicensed libido with Lysander, who appears in the forest armed with a sickle, seeming especially bacchanalian.
The scenes with the mechanicals which intersperse the main themes are well handled and provide a beautifully-judged change of pace to the evening which, pell-mell, is over in less than two-and-a-half hours. As with the Cheek by Jowl Russian Twelfth Night, now at the Barbican, this production is not searching for easy laughs. But, as there, this is not to say that humour is lacking. Joy Fernandes as Bottom is astute enough to realise that Bottom is funnier through being played straight, achieving in the process the wounded dignity and grace in spite of bulk of Oliver Hardy.
The ensemble is universally first-rate, bringing to the performances a clear sense of commitment and joy. P R Jijoy as both Theseus and Oberon is matched by Archana Ramaswamy as a deeply vivacious Titania who also doubles as Hippolyta. There are also fine performances by Ajay Kumar as Puck and Yuki Ellias, Prasanna Mahagamage, Chandan Roy Sanyai and Shanaya Rafaat as, respectively, Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander and Helena. Credit must also go the three musicians who provide a beguiling accompaniment of drums, percussion and sitar and much more besides.
I can't help but feel by creating an Indian Dream, Supple and company have tapped into a spirit and a world Shakespeare would have instantly recognised and which was once to be found as much in our churches as on the stage of our theatres. Those whitewashed walls were once, like designer Sumant Jayakrishnan's costumes and hangings, a riot of colour. And anyone who has ever tipped up a misericord, or choir seat, carved by medieval and Tudor craftsmen, will have seen examples of the sort of mischief and mockery brought magically to life here. Five stars or I'm a fig!
Reviewer: Pete Wood