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A Midsummer's Night's Dream

Escaping the strait jackets of tradition, routine and stereotypes has been the dominant theme of Tim Supple's life, leading to his mesmerizing all-Indian production of "A Midsummer's Night's Dream" that will play at Toronto's Luminato arts-and-culture festival with Shakespeare's words spoken in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Sinhalese, Marathi, Malayalam, Sanskrit — and English,too.

Early on, Supple, 45, former artistic director of London’s Young Vic, made his mark "as the leading story teller in British theater…for "spellbinding group tableaux, musical harmonies and sonorities…explosions of color and light and fabric…gesture, and song, and great chunks of charm." However, he talked more about the impulses that drive him when he was interviewed in San Francisco, the only U.S. venue for the Indian show that has won raves in England for its visual beauty and "for its strangeness, sensuality and communal joy."

With some of the lean grace and look of Fred Astaire, Supple spoke of how "I've always been frustrated and felt claustrophobic by a reductive environment." Born into the only Jewish family in Lewes, a small university town in Sussex where his father was an economic historian, he called it "a liberal, post-sixties, open-minded place, but narrow culturally — very white, very English. I think I had some kind of internal escape mechanism — imagination, books, stories, films, theater." He began making stories into plays at home — Peter Pan was one of the first when he was "about eight."

The first time it really struck him that "there were other people who were very different was when we had a Asian refugee who came to live with us after Idi Amin kicked all the Asians out of Uganda. She was 14 and I must have been eight or ten. It was a surprise to be close to someone who was different, a different color. I was curious about her, but one didn't want to probe too much so I internalized that curiosity. It wasn't easy, but I remember asking her once, 'Why are you brown?' And she said, 'why are you white?'"

In subsequent years, he noted, "It's always been natural for me to work in Britain with actors of African or Indian background because they'll bring something different to the rehearsal room. And it's always been natural for me to travel. I've gone to Norway, Germany and America. In Israel I did something not very interesting for me: a revival of 'Les Miserables' with Israeli performers, but I did that because I was asked and I was possibly interested in making money. But I found out that wasn't possible for me because through my whole journey as a director, it's always been a question of returning to a place of real meaning. Although from time to time," speaking perhaps as the father of three, "I've strayed from that because one has to make a living. But it never worked for me when I stray off that path." His own future road map includes a production of the Arabian Nights with North African Arab actors and an exploration of the Shahnameh, the national epic of Persia, with Iranian performers. "I think this whole restless curiosity about elsewhere partly comes from being Jewish because I don't feel attached to Britain at all. I like it very much. Professionally I love it. I want to keep working in British theater because it's an exciting and positive place to work but it's not important for me to be attached to it."

So it was like a dream come true in 2004 when he was asked by the state supported British Council if he would like to create an all-Indian production in India and Sri Lanka, an impossible financial venture for commercial theaters. In preparation, he read Indian folk tales, modern Indian poets and novelists, stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Always keen to bring stories — like "Gilgamesh" and the Grimm fairy tales — rather than plays, to the theater, he especially enjoyed working on Shakespeare because "Shakespeare is this wonderful connecting point between the drama of stories and plays."

There's excitement in his voice when he talks about the way Shakespeare combines ancient folk theater, songs, dances and archetypes with modern psychological drama. Then traveling all over the subcontinent, he was fascinated by the way Indian performers, speaking their own diverse languages, brought enriching spices to the love stories of Theseus and Hippolyta. Hermia and Lysander, Titania and Oberon, as well as Helena's unrequited love for Demetrius. With song, dance and spellbinding acrobatics, they managed to transform ancient Indian theatrical ways into a kind of vigorous non-traditional contemporary mode.

"Doing it in India was infinitely more interesting for me than doing it in England with so many layers there of preconception, expectation and habit. By going to India I was liberated from that." Still, he said, Shakespeare's text provided strong elements in his production: "the erotism certainly, and the realistic way we treat the workers and their play. It was not so much about making it erotic, but recognizing that was one of the core contents that interested me very much. In the Hindu religion, there's a key relationship between Shiva and his wife. There are two important symbols, the phallus and the vulva and they're often together one with the other. And there is an idea that sexual union between these two is part of the core grounds for harmony. When there is sexual union there is harmony and when there isn't harmony between them there is not harmony in the world."

The idea that sex is part of the stability of the human world is absolutely at the heart of the Titania-Oberon story, Supple noted. The fight over their relationship and the dispute over custody of her adopted son, "is putting the whole world out of kilter because love without sex is quite difficult and that is a key idea to Shakespeare. Somehow the sexual union between those two is at the center of the play . And then the young lovers' stories is entirely about their difficult torture towards sexual union before marriage. The journey to that involves the very fiber of their being. It's not just frivolous and light and funny nor is it tragic like 'King Lear.' "So you've got the sort of mythic layer of sex and then you've got the very human layer of sex and the way the workmen relate to it in their play. At every level sex cuts through the heart of the play and at the end is the blessing that the fairies put on the house that takes place while the three couples are making love."

It is the brilliance of Shakespeare, Supple emphasized, that he presents more than two impressions of sex: one as an animalistic crude lacquer of our bodies and the other that it is an expression of our divinity. "That's the key debate: are we divine? Should we aspire to divinity or are we corporal flesh and blood and the earth? The truth is that we aspire to one but we cannot leave the other alone. Bringing these extreme opposites together through sex and through theater is the miracle at the end of the play."

Toronto Globe and Mail 2008

 

 

 

 

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