A Midsummer Night's Dream often raises associations of amateur performances by teenagers or tyros new to Shakespeare; it appears the easiest of his works to stage; Samuel Pepys disparaged it early on, in 1662, as "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw." It has an image as an innocuous romantic comedy populated by mythological figures, lovers, fairies and bumpkins. Of late, however, scholars have elevated it in the canon, one of them even suggesting that it occupies the position relative to Shakespeare's comedies that Hamlet holds to his tragedies.
A scene from Supple’s Dream
The play's stage history in London follows a similar trajectory. Always popular after 1700, though in heavily altered, even retitled shape, The Dream made excellent material for conversion into operas featuring breathtaking scenery. Changes began in 1853 when Samuel Phelps brought in shadowy fairies without wings and glitter. Yet as late as 1900, Beerbohm Tree (who called modernism "humbug") took the spectacular pictorial principles to their height, releasing rabbits to nibble on real grass. His scene changes, added 45 minutes to the running time, but drew 220,000 theatregoers, the largest number to view any Shakespearean production till then. It is commonly acknowledged that Granville Barker revolutionized the approach to the play in 1914 with simultaneously magical yet symbolic design, reinventing Puck as eerie and menacing, while coating the fairies in all-golden paint. The idea continued in Tyrone Guthrie's presentation of Oberon sprouting horns like a scary insect in 1937, though otherwise he reverted to Romantic-period ballets and Felix Mendelssohn's celebrated music, attaining exquisite results.
All along, The Dream had exerted widespread influence on the other arts, especially outside England. Its sinister side had surfaced as early as the late eighteenth century in some striking paintings of the fairies by the Swiss-born Romantic artist Henry Fuseli. Germany has a long and rich relationship with the play, as indeed with Shakespeare: Mendelssohn composed his overture, possibly the best known in the Western classical repertoire, at the age of 17 in 1826. He followed this lush sonata with incidental music for a production in 1843, its triumphant "Wedding March" now such an inevitable part of marriage ceremonies in the West that few connect it to Mendelssohn, let alone to The Dream. For over a hundred years, his score became the obligatory soundtrack to all dramatic performances of the play, as well as dance: George Ballanchine choreographed the New York City Ballet to it in 1967, an enchanting work preserved on film by director Dan Eridsen. Meanwhile in 1960 Benjamin Britten had transformed The Dream into its most unusual operatic rendition yet, with hard, "metallic" male voices singing the fairies' parts to capture the disturbing liminal world of the forest.
Cinema brought some odd moments to the play. A German silent film of 1925 pastiched it saucily in modern dress, casting Werner Krauss as Bottom and a female pantomime as Puck, both behaving lewdly, persuading Berlin's censors to label it "Verboten" for young audiences. A theatre tradition already existed of women enacting Puck (and Britain also had one of actresses as Oberon); in the legendary Max Reinhardt's Berlin productions of The Dream (which technologically established the superiority of electrical lighting), the star Gertrud Eysoldt played Puck five times between 1905 and 1921. But when Hollywood cinematized it in 1935, the product was a cross-cultural mix, if not mess. Unwilling to risk Reinhardt's fullscale expressionism, Warner Brothers appointed the redoubtable William Dieterle as co-director, and Mickey Rooney took over as Puck—not at all bad in his own right—while James Cagney of gangster flicks acted Bottom. The next movie of The Dream, by Peter Hall in 1968, also had stage origins in the Royal Shakespeare Company. But contrasted to the American blockbuster, its more earthy comedy had a low budget, and as the fickle English climate would have it, had to be shot on cold and wet days, albeit in Shakespeare's own Warwickshire.
Then came Peter Brook, whose 1970 Stratford production virtually rewrote the staging techniques of Shakespearean drama. Bored, in his own words, by "old formulae, old methods, old jokes, old effects," he erected a plain white box containing circus trapezes, swings and ladders to express an effervescent leitmotif of celebrating performance, and clad the dramatis personae in solid primary colours. The London Times remarked that Brook had discovered the play's essence, its Platonic form. But he had also been inspired by the Czech critic Jan Kott, whose Shakespeare Our Contemporary had discussed The Dream as a "very powerful sexual play." Brook thereby opened a Pandora's box of imaginative possibilities. As if to underline this, Woody Allen made A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), the title take-off reflecting his favourite obsession. Not one of Allen's best efforts, the film actually genuflected to Ingmar Bergman's classic Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), also the source of Stephen Sondheim's hit American musical A Little Night Music (1973), which proved a disaster when transferred to screen.
The internationalisation of theatre over the last two decades has led to inter-cultural Dreams as well as novel settings. Brazil recurs in this recent history. The American director A J Antoon placed it amidst the Brazilian carnival (at the New York Shakespeare Festival, 1988); the Brazilian arch anarchist Caca Rosset produced a characteristically Rabelaisian version (1990); and the illustrious German film auteur, Werner Herzog, located it in the Amazonian rain forests (Rio de Janeiro, 1992). Some reviewers thought well of the eminent French Canadian director Robert Lepage's dark, grimy, nightmarish multi-cultural edition (1992) that consciously opposed Brook's joie de vivre, citing Jung and Freud in its accompanying brochure. Japan's much lionised interpreter of Shakespeare, Ninagawa Yukio, staged The Dream in a rock garden (Tokyo, 1994) as his first attempt at comedy. The young German regisseur Karin Beier employed nine European languages in her most lauded production to date (Dusseldorf, 1995), to show that Shakespeare was a pan-European author.
In this continuum arrives Tim Supple, already a director of international repute, still a disciple of Brook in many ways. Like Brook, he regards Kott highly. The transformative threat in all of us, uncovering latent bestial urges but hopefully exorcising them, is what Supple inherits from the psychoanalytical legacy and delves into further in his The Dream. It is not insignificant that he directed Ovid's Metamorphoses in 1999, incidentally one of Shakespeare's sources. The Dream is all about translation, in the old sense of metamorphosis. Helena is prepared to give the world to be "translated" into Hermia; Puck declares that he has "translated" Pyramus; and in the most familiar line in this vein, Bottom's colleagues tell him, aghast, "thou art translated." But Supple seeks to go beyond Brook, believing The Dream "to be a great drama of discord and reconciliation that takes place in the social, sexual and spiritual arenas," as he put it in correspondence with me, "and seeing what happens if each episode is given absolute seriousness and dignity."
Shifting to the modern sense of translation brings us to The Dream in South Asia, where it has endured so well in all languages as to become perhaps the most-performed Shakespearean play, according to one scholar. The preferred medium of transference for Shakespearean drama in India has been the adaptation, to which The Dream lends itself quite easily. The commercial Parsi theatres mounted it in their typically free and lavish extravaganzas during the nineteenth century. Literary translators also indigenised it, such as Srikanthesh Gowda's Pramilarjuniya in Kannada, using Hindu mythical characters. An intriguing experiment took place in Calcutta when Satishchandra Chatterjee transformed it into a Bengali opera, Jahanara (1904), set exclusively in the Muslim community. After Independence, two versions by famous socialist directors gained considerable attention: Utpal Dutt's relatively faithful Chaitali Rater Swapna (1964) in Bengali with his own comic genius in the part of Bottom, and Habib Tanvir's Kam Dev ka Apna, Basant Ritu ka Swapna (1993) in Hindustani and Chhattisgarhi, which omitted Hermia and Helena completely and relegated Theseus and Hippolyta to the background, concentrating on the forest spirits and mechanicals the groups that Tanvir's rural cast understood so well.
For Asian audiences, the most resistant element in Supple's The Dream might be its polyglot script using English, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhala, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and even a smattering of Sanskrit. Our unreasonable expectation of monolingual drama arises not only from habituation to that mode but also from the tyranny of literary studies dependent on the reading of books printed necessarily in one, "pure" language. A hangover of the Raj, this attitude forgets, ironically enough, that most South Asians in real life speak at the very least bilingually. It conveniently ignores as well the hallowed precedent of Indian classical theatre, for which "Sanskrit drama" is a misnomer, since the manuscripts are not exclusively in Sanskrit, but frequently utilise various Prakrits in the same play according to the situation.
In the West, multilingual theatre has become fairly common, particularly in international projects. Supple does not feel handicapped by it and expressed his views to me on this matter unambiguously: "Of course the original text has a special quality, whether Shakespeare or Schiller… on the other hand, I can't accept the superiority of any language." So, inarguably the first-ever Indian production of this nature at least to my knowledge he has brought together actors speaking seven different South Asian tongues on stage. This has happened so far only on a much limited scale in specific cities under guest directors, never at a national, leave alone subcontinental, level. A foreign director has achieved national integration for Indian theatre before any Indian could. Multilingual theatre lives in the West, even if as something of a fad; but in India where it has barely entered, it has every reason to not only exist, but thrive.
Likewise, whereas multi-culturalism has become official policy in several "developed" countries, and to that degree fashionable, inter-cultural theatre has not had unqualified success, confronted with numerous accusations of neo-colonial exploitation from "less developed" partner nations. Inevitably, Supple's activity comes up for scrutiny under those vigilant magnifying glasses. Knowing the debates, observing him direct at close range and having asked members of the team, I can vouch for the fact that he is sensitive to the issue and its dangers. As corroborated by the performers, many of whom have trained extensively in Indian theatre skills, no appropriation occurred. Instead, their individual talents converged in a rigorous process strictly governed by the demands of the text.
Curiously, the play is more closely connected to India than we realise. Its first publication dates to 1600, the same year that the East India Company was founded in London. It was written some years previously, just as the establishment of the East India Company merely formalized commercial developments during the preceding period. The boy over whom Titania and Oberon squabbled and virtually had a Cold War is the only Shakespearean character (admittedly in absentia) of nominally Indian origin. Supple has opted to show the boy in the flesh, but is not the first to do so: he appeared on stage probably as early as 1816 and many times since then, well into the twentieth century. The text contains the most allusions in any Shakespearean work to India, however, few and fanciful. There is even something metaphysically and meta theatrically Indian about Puck stepping out of character and addressing the audience in the end: "you have but slumbered here/while these visions did appear." All these form the stuff of pure coincidence, since Supple says he did not choose The Dream for its Indian links, if any, but it seems to me delightfully serendipitous nonetheless.
Centre for Advanced Studies in English
Jadavpur University, Kolkata