Monday, June 2, 2008

Shakespeare in South Asia

In telling the age-old, universal story of young lovers facing unwelcome parental and social pressures, Shakespeare's imagination took him to Athens, Greece. But Tim Supple transported Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to India, the land of Bollywood where such plots are standard fare. So are the spirits, myths and magic. The south Asian cast playing humans and fairies in this outlandish interpretation hangs from the drapes and climbs up and down a scaffolding delivering lines in five South Asian languages rather than just dance and sing around the trees preferred by Bollywood. Not unlike most Bollywood films, this story does have a happy ending. The music is distinctly Indian combined with elements of Indian acrobatics for most of the action in the forest.

After successfully playing in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkota, Statford-upon-Avon and London, it came to San Francisco in May. It was well received by critics, including Karen DeSouza who wrote for the San Jose Mercury as follows: "Sexual energy explodes from the performances as vigorously as the corps of acrobats, who rip through the walls of the set. The verse must compete with the twitching pulse of feverish flesh. Silk drapes billow through the court; Titania dangles from a satin bower; Demetrius and Lysander chase Helena through a tangled web of elastic bands. The god of Eros reigns supreme in this pageant of visual jewels."

Having seen such rave reviews, my family and I went to the San Francisco performance at the Curran theater with capacity crowd of mostly white American theatergoers. It was interesting to see how the South Asian languages did not present a barrier for the West Coast audience as they enjoyed and laughed along with the acrobatics and antics of Puck and other cast members speaking mostly Hindi/Urdu and four other South Asian languages, in addition to a little bit of English. Clearly, the knowledge and familiarity of Shakespeare's play was helping the audience appreciate the extraordinary performance.

Here's a brief rundown of the cast and the languages in the San Francisco performance:

Ajay Kumar(Philostrate/Puck), Hindi, English
Archana Ramaswamy(Hippolyta/Titania), Malayalam, English
Chandan Sanyal(Lysander), Bengali, English
Faezeh Jalali(Peaseblossom), English
Joy Fernandes(Bottom), English, Marathi
Joyraj Bhattacharya(Flute), Bengali, English, Hindi
Prasana Mahagamage(Demetrius), Sinhala, English
Shanaya Rafaat(Helena), English
Vivek Mishra(Quince), Hindi, English
Yuki Ellias(Hermia), English, Bengali
P R Jijoy(Theseus/Oberon), Malayalam, Hindi, Sanskrit

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