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Body Language

May 14, 2008

Shakespeare Comedy Gets Ethnic

Have you ever had the feeling that you're Han Solo walking into the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine? I think about a third of the audience at the Curran Theatre, myself included, felt like space travelers wandering into the bar full of alien races from the Star Wars franchise at the opening night performance of British director Tim Supple's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a profoundly disorienting sensation, but for those of us unfazed enough to stick around for the second half, an experience we won't easily forget.

I knew going in that Supple's Dream would radically challenge traditional notions about Shakespeare. Developed over two years in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, this version of the Bard's comedy of love and bewitchment written around 1595 not only features a cast from a variety of South Asian nations but also disposes of about 50 percent of Shakespeare's language. Over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour production currently receiving its North American premiere in San Francisco, the actors intersperse bits of the original English with lines translated into Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Sinhalese, Malayalam, Marathi, and Sanskrit. What I didn't expect was to come away feeling I'd gleaned fresh insights into the effects of globalization on even the most sacrosanct of literary works.

From the mid-17th century, theater companies have regularly reinvented Shakespeare's works to suit the tastes of the time, giving happy endings to tragedies like King Lear to lighten them up (Nahum Tate's The History of King Lear, 1681) and adding extra female characters to The Tempest in response to new edicts allowing women to perform onstage (John Dryden and Sir William Davenant's The Enchanted Island, 1667). In more recent times, his plays have been appropriated by many cultures and transformed into multiple genres, including hip-hop. With this legacy in mind, the idea that "traditional notions" of these plays even exist today seems strange.

Yet while many native-English-speaking theatergoers don't expect to see Shakespeare performed in doublet and hose these days, many might balk at the idea of productions that do away with his poetry. As such, Supple's production presents something of a challenge even for seasoned audiences. To anyone unfamiliar with the Asian languages that constitute half of the dialogue, listening to the actors' speeches is rather like trying to tune a radio: "Blah blah blah blah Demetrius! Blah blah Helena! Blah Hermia blah blah blah blah Lysander."

On the advent of the play's first major commercial run in London last year, Supple said in a BBC interview that the polyglot approach was never a guiding concept for the production, but "simply the result of having performers from so many parts of India." Yet the use of multiple languages is to my mind the most fascinating aspect of this Dream, because it makes British and American audiences face the uncomfortable reality that we are moving toward a post-Anglo-American world.

At one level, being forced to abandon all hope of understanding what's being said onstage is liberating. Without language, our responses to the action are utterly visceral. We start to hear the sounds coming from the actors' mouths not as words, but as music; meanwhile, every string, wind, or percussion note played by the three company musicians seems rich and strange. Sumant Jayakrishnan's massive bamboo climbing frame backdrop and riotously hued Asian-themed costumes and Zuleikha Chaudhari's passionate lights play as significant a role in the action as the performers' intense facial expressions and extreme physicality: We rely on the interplay of all these elements to draw meaning from the play. When Archana Ramaswamy's Titania chases PR Jijoy's Oberon down the wooden rungs of the set, viciously pulling his hair and eventually landing on him, cries of "Ouch!" flare up in the audience. And when Joy Fernandes' Bottom ambles onstage with raffia donkey ears and what looks like a giant acorn squash attached to the front of his pants, we hoot with laughter.

Yet at another level, feeling linguistically challenged brings out the frustration and discombobulation that Shakespeare's Athenian lovers in the play experience at the mercy of their uncontrollable passions and the labyrinthine, spook-filled forest. Yuki Ellias (Hermia), Prasanna Mahagamage (Demetrius), Chandan Roy Sanyal (Lysander), and Shanaya Rafaat (Helena) echo that sensation of entrapment in the many scenes in which they attempt to communicate in completely different languages. For English-speaking audiences, the effect of Supple's multilingual staging is disturbing and, for some of us, even disenfranchising.

In his new book, The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria takes stock of the changing face of global power, from a planet helmed by the U.S. to one "defined and directed from many places and by many people." Supple's Dream beautifully illustrates this point. Zakaria's book highlights the ironic effects of Anglo-American cultural imperialism: "For 60 years, American politicians and diplomats have traveled around the world pushing countries to open their markets, free up their politics, and embrace trade and technology," he writes. "We counseled them to be unafraid of change and learn the secrets of our success. And it worked: the natives have gotten good at capitalism." By enabling actors from parts of the former British Empire to appropriate this seminal English literary work and make it their own, Supple turns cultural imperialism on its head. The production makes us understand what it's like to live in a world where the English language, contrary to popular belief, may not always occupy its current global position.

To those in the audience on opening night who left at intermission, possibly disgusted at Supple's misappropriation of the English language's greatest playwright, all I can say is this: The destruction of the Death Star is inevitable — so why not be brave, pull up a pew at the Mos Eisley Cantina next to that friendly alien, and have a drink?



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