By Monidipa Mondal
Photographs by Saptarshi Chakraborty
**Click on thumbnails for a larger view of the images**
If there is a theatre director at the moment who can afford to be proud, it has to be Tim Supple. Yet moving around the second-floor balcony of Kala Mandir on a sunny winter afternoon, as the crowds mill in after another show of his much-acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tall, agile man from London is incredibly polite and patient, receiving congratulations, answering questions from enthralled students who throng around him, signing notepads and posing for photographs, that obliging smile never disappearing from his face. Throughout the show he has shuffled around the auditorium, getting a firsthand feel of the audience reaction. And Tim Supple looks like a happy man.
So how is does it feel to return to India with his play, after having done more than 150 shows at different prestigious locations abroad? His production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has travelled to the UK and Italy and is all set to take on Australia, the US, Canada and Europe, but as Supple emphasizes, ‘This is where we first rehearsed and performed the play, this is its home. It’s difficult and involves a lot of work and money, but it’s very important and extremely special to bring it back to India.’ Since the last time, the play has moved from outdoors to the proscenium, and the “innocence” of being a nascent production has been replaced by a higher level of confidence and stronger formation. The proscenium lacks the wonderful naturalness of atmosphere offered by the outdoors, rues Supple, but also adds that it gives the play greater aural and visual focus, making it more controlled, which is an advantage.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a product of a long and passionate involvement with India on the part of Tim Supple. He arrived in the country in 2005, invited by the British Council to do a play with Indian actors. He agreed to accept this offer, he says, because he was interested in Indian performance and the history of theatre in India. ‘It was new to me, I didn’t know it; so it was an adventure for me to come to India,’ he says, adding, ‘And I was looking for something different in my life and work.’ The British Council offer gave him liberty to choose the kind of play he would like to do, so Supple decided to travel through the country first, exploring various types of performances. And a wise decision it turned out to be, because his assumption of creating a play in English was soon dispelled by the variety and range of performances he came across and “was immediately and immensely struck by”, as he puts it, many of which he realized would not work in English because they were folk forms, classical forms and forms of regional theatre. By the end of his first trip, he says, he was already resolved to experiment and include performers who would not work in English.
During his second trip when Supple started auditioning, he had young Indian directors and producers assisting him in different cities (he mentions Ananda Lal in Calcutta, Roysten Abel in Delhi and Atul Kumar in the South) as he selected from both actors who worked in English and actors who did not, with whom he conducted the initial workshops. ‘It was very important for me to have in that room many different people,’ recounts Supple. ‘We were all working on Shakespeare, but some people would work in English and some in Bengali or other regional languages. Some could read the script and others would work from a kind of summary. We did the same sessions around the country in Calcutta, Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Delhi, Manipur and so on. I would always ask the people to use whatever language they felt comfortable acting in, and by the end of that second trip it was clear that the production would be multi-lingual.’
His third trip to India involved selecting sixty actors from these workshops, who were taken to Mumbai and went through another week of workshops, out of which twenty-three actors were chosen for the final play. Three more months of further workshop followed, where people spent many hours understanding the essence of play together, performers from different theatrical traditions worked, watched, respected and learnt from each other’s performance and reached the seamless harmony that the final play seems to radiate. ‘The play is the cement,’ remarks the contented director, grinning.
Choosing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the play to put up with this interesting assimilation of performers was entirely an intellectual decision, says Supple. It was a play he had wanted to do for years, but he could especially feel it working with the diversity and multi-linguality of the Indian cast. He believed the collision of languages would “animate” the play and liberate its text, and that it would represent the multi-lingual nature of India and also, more importantly, the imaginary world created by Shakespeare in the play itself. ‘Shakespeare gives us a strange Athens,’ he explains, ‘which is partly based on myth, partly on Elizabethan customs, partly on Roman romances – in Shakespeare you always find this wonderful mess of raw material onstage, which is the great thing about him.’ Supple feels his English-speaking Helena and Hermia fit perfectly into the image of women in the aristocracy, just as his mechanicals, who keep switching between English and vernacular, represent the language of working class men like themselves quite accurately. The worst thing one can do to Shakespeare, says Supple, is to preserve him as a neat and precise classical art form, and mentions that performing Shakespeare in his way, he has never been told that the play does not work in an intellectual basis.
The veteran director seems slightly jarred if asked whether it was difficult to communicate with actors speaking different languages. ‘Everybody asks that question as if it is a problem, but why? Why in life are we so stuck with language?’ he retorts. ‘Language is important and I’d find it very hard to have a close friendship or love affair with someone who spoke a different language, but you never know. Why should we restrict our communication to only languages we know? Of course it helps, but it’s not necessary. Theatre is the magic, it’s the magic of communication.’
Neither does he accept that the incomprehensibility of many languages is one of the reasons why much of the play depends heavily on physical acting. The fact that the question even arises, says Supple, indicates how much modern theatre has moved away from physicality. ‘I would have always done A Midsummer Night’s Dream like this, even if I did it in English,’ says he, and goes on to illustrate how the actual acting in his play depends much less on active physical expression than a viewer seems to remember having seen it once: ‘The first and the last scenes are very long and with minimum physical action. And the mechanicals just sit around in a semicircle, I’ve never seen the mechanicals done like that.’ The physical acting is chiefly seen in the forest scenes, and Supple agrees, saying that it’s natural, because the forest is about sex, violence, danger and unseen animals. ‘ For me it’s not physical acting, it’s just acting’ he justifies. ‘It has nothing to do with language and I wouldn’t want to do it in any other way.’
However, Supple does acknowledge that British actors would possibly not be able to perform the play as well as their Indian counterparts, as they are less accustomed to creatively using their bodies. He blames it on a steady process of loss of attachment to theatrical forms in the West ever since the 16th century, as writers and the script gained more and more importance. In India traditional forms of art are learnt, practised and sustained, he observes, while in the Western cultures each generation of artists tries to tear up the previous generation’s achievements and move on. As a result, he says about the current generation of theatre actors in England, ‘Realistic acting is all they can do.’
Supple is full of interesting anecdotes about the audience reaction to his play. The Indian audience in general seems to be more anxious about the “purity” of Shakespeare than the British, he notes with some amusement. The British audience doesn’t flinch about the sexual content of the play, and their reaction is intellectually much simpler while in India, says Supple, there is more critical awareness about the content of the play and more discussion and detailed feedback. But while the Indian audience can identify the different performances and languages more readily, Supple is surprised to notice in them what he calls a “snobbery about language” – for example, sitting in the audience during a performance in Calcutta, he had found his neighbour, a gentleman in his 70s, completely annoyed by the excessive usage of what he referred to as the “Southern languages.” However, says Supple, in India he found the audience in Mumbai the most conservative; and while the audience in Calcutta almost baffled him into despair by not laughing enough at the funny scenes and sitting down during the song at the end of the play, they made up for the lack of exuberance with engaging comments and feedback, post-show.
Also, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream sets itself to tour the world as a play performed in the proscenium, Supple is heavily nostalgic about the outdoor performances. He speaks with unmistakeable fondness about the intimate, three-sided Elizabethan stage of the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, the enormous Roman amphitheatre-like performance space in Verona, the large horse-shoe shaped stage at the Roundhouse in London, and in India, the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. He also recollects his earlier trip to Calcutta when the play was performed outdoors in the grounds of the Tolly Club. Things like constructing the performance space from scratch, a little village-like structure that was gradually formed, exposure to the elements and even the cries of the jackals in the background, he says, added a distinct natural atmosphere to the play that is impossible to imitate in the proscenium. The reasons for the shift were chiefly economic, explains the director – the costs for production are high, and since prosceniums theatres in cities in Europe and America have a steady business and audience, it was necessary to fit the play into that pre-existing structure, as he remarks, ‘The decision to go to proscenium was so that the play can have a life.’ However, people watching the play for the first time in the proscenium do not find anything wanting, assures Supple. The proscenium, moreover, helps the actors to gain more focus and mutual coordination, he adds.
And before the ethereal strains of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fade from our memory, Tim Supple is already working on his next project, a unique adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. He says he hasn’t made concrete plans yet but he has been travelling, planning the script and auditioning actors in India, China, South America and Europe. Would this production be along the same lines as A Midsummer Night’s Dream? ‘That depends on what you mean by same. If you mean there would be a mixture of languages and mixture of performances, probably,’ says the director. And we can only wait and speculate what other magic he plans to unravel next.