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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 March 2007, 12:44 GMT
India Shakespeare play tours UK
By Vincent Dowd
BBC arts reporter

Archana Ramaswamy (Titania) and PR Jijoy (Oberon)
The play is performed in a variety of languages

A new version of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream now playing in London shows how globalisation has affected even the most time-honoured literary works.

This production features actors from South Asia, with much of the dialogue not in English - but the director insists the playwright would approve.

In the 1990s Tim Supple secured his reputation running the Young Vic theatre in London.

But reaction to some of his later projects was less positive and he admitted that he needed a new direction.

All-Indian cast

Then came an unexpected offer from the Delhi offices of the British Council: come to India and direct something.

Mr Supple came up with the idea of touring A Midsummer Night's Dream with an all-Indian cast.

A four-city tour started in Delhi in April 2006 and was followed by a dozen performances in the UK in Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon.

The critics loved it, and this week's opening of one of Shakespeare's most exotic works at the Roundhouse in London represents the first big commercial run for the production.

William Shakespeare
The actors say Shakespeare's plays contain a touch of Bollywood

Though the aim is to make money no one's compromising on the bold vision he and his cast of 23 worked on at Auroville in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Only about half the dialogue is in English - the rest is in a mixture of Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Sinhalese, Malayalam, Marathi and Sanskrit.

Mr Supple says the linguistic mix was never a big concept, simply the result of having performers from so many parts of India.

Set in the Athenian court and in a fairy-ridden forest, A Midsummer Night's Dream has long allowed directors and designers to run riot with their imaginations.

Yet few productions have looked as gorgeous as this one.

'Highly relevant'

Indian designer Sumant Jayakrishnan and lighting designer Zuleikha Chaudhari have conjured up the essence of South Asia on stage: this Dream's a bright and colourful treat for the eyes.

Performers in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
The play is one of Shakespeare's most exotic works

The cast dance and sing, although Mr Supple says that he wants to avoid too clichéd a stage view of India.

Actors weave in and out of a tall bamboo frame and swing from ropes above the red soil of South Asia.

Tim Supple says the core of the play is highly relevant to Indians.

"At least a third of this company will have had severe family ruptures over marriage or career choice.

"So the dilemma of the play - the insistence by Egeus that his daughter Hermia marry the man he chose for her - is much closer to many of this company than it would be in Britain.

"Also many of them will live where belief in the spirit-world is much stronger than in the UK.

"And extreme differences between rich and poor, which underlie so much of the play, are much more alive in India than in the West."

Indian performers in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
The play has started a commercial run in the UK

Archana Ramaswamy, who plays Titania, says the actors haven't had to look far for parallels between Shakespeare's story and their own lives.

"The complete madness that we all carry within ourselves - the vibrancy of Indian culture - the richness, the earthiness, the spirit... it's all there in the play. It's like the chaotic lives we all live!"

Chandan Roy Sanyal, playing Lysander, thinks Shakespeare isn't far removed from today's Bollywood.

"When we film a love story in India it's based on Romeo and Juliet. That's the essence of any love story: there is a girl and there is a boy. It's still prevalent in society right now. I've realised that Shakespeare was a very commercial writer."

This is a production for the open-minded.

If you want to appreciate every last word of Shakespeare's verse you may be disappointed that some of the dialogue is hard to catch.

Certainly it would be a good idea to see the show with at least a basic knowledge of the complex plot. But the show will be relished by those who love traditional productions.

And Mr Supple is sure that if William Shakespeare saw the show today he would enjoy it.

"Well maybe he'd be a bit surprised to find half the words not in English. But he'd recognise the heart and soul of the production and its physicality. He's there on stage in the dust and the earth."

After the London dates, the show tours the UK and further dates in India are planned for the end of the year.


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