A perennial Shakespeare favourite, played out in a college garden on a just-bearable English summer evening, with the audience sipping Pimms and the cast cavorting in the bushes with flowers in their hair: this has become the classic format within which most of us encounter A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This production at the Roundhouse, commissioned by the British Council and created by director Tim Supple in India with Indian and Sri Lankan performers, has turned that tradition entirely on its head. Caroline Bishop went to see the spectacle…
For a start, only half of it is performed in the English language – Supple’s show sees the performers acting in seven South Asian languages, a device that the audience increasingly takes in its stride as the show progresses. The only flowers are the ones thrown on stage at the end, and the green lawn is replaced by a stage of red earth, on which the performers writhe around and tussle, fight and make love, in this hugely physical show.
A sexual charge runs throughout the action. Hermia and Lysander, in similar lime green and orange dress, are a couple whose love – and lust – for each other is passionately real; Demetrius is physically threatening in his obsession with Hermia; the beautiful Titania and Oberon are a striking and powerful presence in the forest, and have an almost visible magnetic attraction which sees them play-fighting roughly in the earth. The physicality of the performances makes the characters and the situation more believable than ever.
The forest is surprisingly vivid in this imaginative staging, designed by Sumant Jayakrishnan. A backdrop of intertwined bamboo canes, like a huge climbing frame, is at first covered in paper, and when the performers batter through it, the paper hangs off it in ragged leaves, conjuring the trees and the foliage through which the quartet of lovers come clambering, while the fairies hide and watch. A spectacular display of rope work is also used to create the nooks and crannies of the forest; Titania, cradled high above in a cocoon of red cloth, seems an integral part of the forest that is her home.
The mechanicals, also, are intensely physical in their performances. Joy Fernandes bellows and snorts his way through his entertaining portrayal of the oafish Bottom who becomes bewitched to think he is an ass. Woven ears, a cow-bell and a well-placed butternut squash help him garner the most laughs of the evening.
The physicality is offset by a sense of magic that pervades the show, as any production of this play should have. But here the magic is darker, and again, more real. No sprinkling of fairy dust here – as Oberon bewitches Titania he rubs red dust roughly in her eyes so she struggles.
It may not be a production in the English tradition, but Supple has created a show that introduces British audiences to new traditions: traditions of Indian and Sri Lankan performance, costume and design that, to those who are new to them, give this play a refreshing and delightful new life.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is taking part in Get Into London Theatre, which finishes this Saturday, 17 March. To book tickets through GILT, click here.