A globetrotting director comes home this month as Tim Supple brings his ‘Indian Dream’ to the Roundhouse for a short season. A unique spectacle staged in a unique venue away from the traditions of the West End, Supple’s Indian version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything but conventional Shakespeare. But then Supple is not one to be tied down by convention. Caroline Bishop meets a man far happier searching out acting talent in Kerala than confined to the four walls of a British theatre…
Tim Supple has big dreams. Dreams that have led the director to lead an itinerant life for the past few years, wandering the globe, immersing himself in other cultures and channelling his experiences into vibrant theatrical reinterpretations. One particular dream has become a real sensation; his production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, created in India over a period of two years, was a huge hit both in India and in Stratford, where it had a short run as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival.
“It’s wonderful when you do something and you don’t know how much life it’s going to have, and then it does have as big a life as you could have dreamed of,” Supple tells me, when we meet on one of his brief spells in London, sandwiched between trips to India. He is over here to start the process of rehearsing the show for its much-anticipated return to the UK, for a six-week run at London’s Roundhouse, another dream come true for Supple: “I said the place we most wanted to go in London was the Roundhouse, but I didn’t really think that was possible.”
Supple seems to have a talent for turning dreams into reality. On paper, his vision for an ‘Indian Dream’ sounds unworkable. After being commissioned by the British Council to create a touring show in India, Supple decided on this much-produced play by Shakespeare – that most English of playwrights – as the ideal vehicle for an Indian-set theatrical experience. But this is Shakespeare as you have never seen it before. Shrugging off all conventions with delicious abandon, Supple’s unique transformation of the Bard’s magical story is a theatrical spectacle incorporating dance, music, acting, circus and street theatre, with only half the dialogue in English – the rest is performed in languages including Tamil, Malaysian, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and Sanskrit.
For Supple, this melee of styles and languages was the basis of his dream. The 44-year-old British director, who has spent years working in ‘traditional’ UK theatrical environments – the RSC, the National Theatre, the Young Vic, where he was Artistic Director for eight years – wanted to incorporate as many aspects of Indian theatrical traditions and contemporary life as he could into the show, and in a country that displays such a wide geographical, social and linguistic spectrum, it was a tall order.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream fitted the bill perfectly, says Supple, as it “asks for performers of such rich difference. That’s the thing that UK productions struggle to bring out. The difference between a fairy, a young lover, an aristocratic warrior, the king of the fairies, the mechanicals. You get this homogeneity in Britain. The only distinction you get is in class. But in India there are whole distinctions in way of life.” He was also humble enough not to choose a piece by an Indian playwright which would “put me completely on to their territory. Who am I to tell them how to act [an Indian play]?”
Furthermore, Shakespeare is more suited to India than you might think, says Supple, in that conditions in India – both physical and social – are “closer to the world that Shakespeare’s actors would have known”. He gives the examples of fathers who threaten to kill their children who don’t marry, or the huge division between the aristocracy and the man on the street.
Add all this to the fact that he’d always wanted to do the play – “I love the play deep in my bones” – but never felt inspired to do it in Britain, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the perfect choice for Supple’s project in India, a country which, evidently, does inspire him.
"I wanted to do a show that would embrace all this, everybody, anybody that I met"
The director’s passion for India and the experience of working there is palpable. Sitting in a private members’ bar in central London sipping coffee, he looks incongruous and slightly uncomfortable in this slick, media watering hole; as he talks about creating theatre in India however, his passion and respect for that environment comes through, and judging by the serious, enthused manner in which he expresses himself, he wants others to understand that passion too.
He is passionate about his 23-strong cast, selected from a large pool of performers from all over the country over the course of three trips he made to India in 2005; actors, musicians, dancers whose diversity fuelled Supple’s vision. “There was this brilliant powerful young guy from Kerala. He has a conventional training in a drama school, but that involved learning a kind of magic theatre, a sort of theatre of rituals that’s particular to Kerala. So I thought here’s an Oberon who could really give access to this idea of something supernatural.”
The style of acting Supple encountered in India excited him in a way that acting in the UK doesn’t. “What I saw that is very hard to find in Britain is a sense of physical clarity on stage, like fighting, ways of fighting that was stylised, which is very exciting.” He adds: “When I came back [from India] the first thing I noticed about the first show I saw in Britain, [was] how much less elegant physically the actors are, how much more awkward they are.”
His regular references to the limitations he finds in British theatre continue when he describes how his multi-lingual show communicates the story to audiences. “I’ve lived my life in British theatre with the obsession with the words and the language. I know how that can be great and that can be nothing. That can mean nothing, if someone’s sitting in the back of the stalls bored to f**king tears because it’s so traditional and meaningless. So for me, it’s a different sound for Shakespeare and it communicates because we make it communicate.”
Supple went through a number of processes to ensure the language worked. He and the cast spent a week just playing communication games, and a second week where every cast member had to learn what was being said by another actor word for word so they could do simultaneous translation on stage. Anyway, as Supple says, Shakespeare’s original language involves “a lot of deciphering” so this is no different. “It could be a barrier but no more, no less than the original language. Oberon, who does most of the show in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, I think he communicates to the audience what Oberon is saying as beautifully as any RSC actor who speaks every syllable perfectly.”
"It could be a barrier but no more, no less than the original language"
The show ran for three nights in each of four cities in India, and “it went down extremely well, standing ovations everywhere”. But, although Supple was delighted to then bring it home to Stratford – after a stopover at the Verona Festival – he told his cast not to expect a standing ovation there “because in England we don’t stand”.
He was surprised and moved, to find that British audiences proved him wrong. “The reaction was euphoric, and it was very moving,” says Supple. “The first preview a very grey-bearded, grey-haired, middle-aged Stratford audience had come, booked on the website, and it was very moving for me to see these people who I’ve done plays for most of my life, the average English punter who is middle-aged, middle-class, to see them standing on their feet and roaring, it was very touching.”
Audiences like these “have a hunger for new experiences” such as Indian Dream, believes Supple, but it is not often that they are provided. It is about priorities, he says. While the UK theatre industry adheres to “this Western tradition where we think theatre has to be a certain standard of professionalism” by which he means production values, India has a different set of priorities: “When I first went to India it was the biggest lesson for me. I’d walk into a theatre to see a show and the designs… it’s like my heart would drop, I’d have a slight superiority complex and think oh… And then these people walk on stage and the inner quality of their acting would bring tears to my eyes and shame that I would think in that way.” Watching Indian actors is, he enthuses, “almost like being reintroduced to some lost art of theatre, that we all know is the whole point of theatre, which is about one person communicating to another person, and this they do so brilliantly, and I think that’s one of the reasons that it feels so special.”
The experience of working in India seems to have fuelled Supple’s view that theatrical institutions in the UK are restrictive by comparison. The RSC, he says, “has a very narrow view of theatre”; while at the Young Vic he “felt restricted by size, by the space, by how far I could push the project theatre”; and at other venues like the Royal Court or the National “as a director you have to absorb the philosophy and the history that is within the building. That’s fine, but up to a point. I suppose what I yearn for is having no agenda to have to work to.”
It is perhaps a little unfair to label these theatres with such limitations, particularly as the RSC hosted Supple’s Indian Dream as part of its Complete Works. But it must also be hard for someone who now enjoys such privileged freedom as a globetrotting director not to feel hemmed in by any physically static organisation. After all, this is someone whose travels have led him to feel: “When I travel to somewhere like India I think how big the world is and how little I know. You get a bit stuck here and you think we’re really important, but we’re just another little village.”
In order to give his travels an identity, in 2005 Supple and co-Artistic Director Josephine Burton created Dash Arts, which he describes as “a forum, a place from which I can collaborate with artists abroad”. Dash refers to a hyphen, linking things: “If there is a philosophy it’s about trying to cut through what divides us, and connect with what we can connect with in each other.” The company gives a framework for Supple’s artistic output, and, on a personal level, enables him to continue leading the life that suits him best. “I get very unhappy, very itchy, when I get stuck too much in a particular environment,” he admits, “and I feel a constant hunger to find out what other people are doing, thinking, and to constantly have to meet new ways of working and adapting, and to exchange something of what I know [with] what other people know. I get very unhappy in systems. Travelling allows me to see other people’s systems.”
"I suppose what I yearn for is having no agenda to have to work to"
Consequently, he has worked in Norway, Germany, Israel, America, Egypt, collecting experiences, systems, rituals. This nomadic life is one he loves, but he admits it has alienated him from his peers. “I feel blessed and strangely, joyously, out of touch with my colleagues here,” he says. “There’s not a problem with that, we all do different things. I went to see Frost/Nixon the other day – I am in awe of what Michael Grandage can do and I can’t do that. So it’s not about feeling superior, it’s just I’m doing my thing. I love being in London and going to see shows, it’s where my home is and my theatrical base, but,” he says strongly, “I would die if I had to work in this environment forever.”
Lucky then, that it is just a short stay at the Roundhouse, after which Supple is taking his team on a large-scale international tour, spreading his brand of cross-cultural magic around the world*. After six weeks in London he’ll be itching to board a plane and soak up more experiences on foreign shores. “You have to find your habitat,” he tells me, “and my habitat seems to be out there.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Roundhouse from 8 March-21 April.
*The show has just announced a nine-venue UK tour prior to the international tour.