A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – Now at The Curran Theatre

An enthusiastic multi-lingual romp into mythical Athens

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Director Tim Supple’s South Asian production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM makes its North American premiere at the Curran Theatre now through June 1st. The production combines the diverse skills of actors, dancers, martial arts experts, musicians and street acrobats from across India and Sri Lanka. The production is the culmination of a project that began in autumn 2004 when the British Council in India and Sri Lanka commissioned Supple to create and direct a new touring theater production.

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The Company of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Photo, Tistram Kenton

The Bard of Avon never anticipated his works to be translated – not even into French, just a few mouthfuls of swimming distance on the other side of the Channel. This production incorporates eight languages: English, Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, Sanskrit, and Sinhala. Out in Row K – the vast majority of the verse and prose in the one language most familiar to me definitely needs work. Devoted fans of the play, i.e., those who seek out every major production opportunity and use the expression, “I know it backwards”, may be interested in attending. So might the Bay Area residents and visiting tourists who seldom hear Shakespeare in anything other than English. But a word of caution to those who have to be dragged into live Theatre, may be fed up with A.C.T., and especially to certain students who have been assigned “Midsummer” – haven’t gotten around to reading it, are facing final papers and exams next week, and may be considering attending this presentation as a more viable experience than using Cliffs Notes: This ain’t it.

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ARCHANA RAMASWAMY (Titania, front) and P R JIJOY (Oberon). Photo by Tristram Kenton

In an interview, director Tim Supple was asked about the decision to use multiple languages and how various audiences have reacted to it.

“It is a strange thing the languages” says Supple, “because we worked very hard at finding a form of communication that could work for us all. We got used to having so many different languages in the rehearsal space and it became the parlance of our group – this multilingualism. And actually, it is an aspect of contemporary India. I can see why people remark on that aspect of the show, but the point is that I wanted the production to arise out of contemporary India, and the more I traveled the more I realized that multilingualism is the only way. The language issue was more a decision of negatives – what I mean by that is that if I had done it all in English I would have restricted myself to a very particular group of people who had certain training and acted in a certain way. None of the folk performers act in English, none of the traditional physical performers act in English.”

“Another thing was that if I had chosen just one other language alongside English, such as Hindi or Bengali, I would have restricted myself to one region of India. It wasn’t that we thought multilingualism would be necessarily a good thing – it was just a necessity. I was doing the best production I could with the actors I had and in order to get them to be their strongest selves they had to speak the language they live with and act in. Having said that, by the time it got to stage it was unusual, and potentially very interesting, or, potentially very disturbing. We had people dropping in and out of our rehearsals and on the whole they said that it was just interesting – that obviously it took some time to tune in to a multilingual environment but once they did so it didn’t disturb.”

“When we took the production around India we found that it was far from being a problem. It wasn’t only okay; it actually enriched the experience for the audience. The great majority of the audience responded saying it was fantastic for them to hear other languages on stage; that it was a wonderful celebration, that sense of the nation on the stage. It was really interesting, positive, exciting, but there were also people who didn’t like it. There were more people who had problems with the multilingualism in India than in the UK. I could sense that that would be the case the more time I spent in India. It was partly snobbishness about Shakespeare, which is greater in India than in the UK; the idea that it must be done in ‘proper’ English, and proper English means old fashioned English. This partly comes from internal politics about language. There is a feeling of superiority in the northern languages and some Hindi and Bangalore speakers feel that their languages are superior to southern languages, Tamil for example. Hindi and Bangalori are closer to the structure of Shakespearean language so they actually translate more easily. Usually the people who came to me to say “what must it be like for people who don’t know the play” were always people who know the play worrying about those who don’t – I’ve never had one person who didn’t know the play express a problem.”

“When we came to the UK I think there were other factors at work – people really enjoyed the unusual quality of sounds on stage. We are much more used to foreign-language Shakespeare in the UK – a lot of theatergoers would have experience some kind of foreign-language production, but I also hope that we reach lots of people who haven’t. I don’t see this show as a foreign-language Shakespeare; just that half of the production is not in English. Even with any preconceived ideas about the language issues, the show was a complete success in both India and England with standing ovations every night. The issues were more prevalent in India, because India is India, but in the UK people seemed more released, more able to enjoy the play.”

Mr. Supple was then asked how the highly visual and physical nature of the show may have overrode the way the text was translated and likewise compensated for problems with multiple languages.

“We were very careful to try and get translations as accurate as possible – if it was in verse then the translators worked in verse. If it was in prose then they worked in prose. I didn’t want people to modernize the language – something which the actors found difficult at first. I explained that I wanted a parallel text. It had to be accurate and we needed translators who really understood the way the character spoke. When translations came to us sometimes the actors explained they didn’t like them. If it needed to be changed then the actors changed it, but the translations were very closely and rigorously executed. It is 50% of why the show works for the audience – even if you don’t understand word for word what is being said on stage it’s done with rigor and rhythm, you don’t drop or lose the rhythm.”

“The physical nature of the show? It isn’t about coming to India to perform Shakespeare in an Indian style; to force it. What I’ve done is to make the best production of the Dream that I can with the people that I most wanted to work on it. They just happen to be Indian and therefore the whole show arises out of India. The production is as visual as I would want it to be but in a way that would have to have been created artificially with British performers. There was a unique set of inspirations. The show is drawn totally out the talents of the cast and the designer, and my own instinct about the play as a director. So I just let their knowledge run riot. The designer went through the same process I went through.”

“When I got back from the last rehearsal period I went to shows in England and the first thing I noticed was the inelegance on stage because there isn’t the same deep commitment to physicality in the British theatre. Our cast are not all physical experts but all of the actors will have had some experience – physicality is much more part of acting in India. Some of our actors are extremely fine physical actors, again in England we would be talking about a stylized production of The Dream with actors who have a style – it’s not like that. The physicality within the cast is just who they are. The Dream exists in an imaginative frame and you’ve got lovers tearing themselves to bits in the forest, fairies putting the fairy queen to sleep, four dances, mechanicals acting a play – its an absolutely physically expressed play and even if you understood every inch of the language I would hope that it would still be like that.”

To purchase tickets on-line: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Visit Seán on YouTube
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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@gmail.com.

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