Monday, 10 September 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Dash Arts 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Dash Arts, Hertfordshire, UK.

The most startling thing about this production is its pure physicality. No airy fairytale with ethereal spirits, this version is deeply entrenched in the physical realm, encompassing dance, martial arts, aerial work and acrobatics, as well as colour, texture, music and exotic speech. The actors are vastly aware of their own bodies, and even in normal movement are fluid and sensual (the lovers and fairies), comically precise (the mechanicals) or substantially regal (the court). The costumes are Indian in style, vividly coloured with an abundance of bright reds and oranges. When Oberon anoints the eyes of Titania it is with a flower that audibly shatters when crushed, leaving a red powder to spread across her sleeping face. The eight languages spoken throughout - primarily English with Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and Sanskrit - open up new dimensions within the play, enriching the speech without at all detracting from the comprehensibility of the action. Everything here is rich and tangible, a wonderful assault on the senses which begins with the drumming in the first scene, building in intensity as the music reverberates around the auditorium

The set is a wooden framework of ladders and windows, initially covered entirely in white paper through which the fairies later burst. By the end of the performance only ragged strips remain. All of the actors engage in aerial or acrobatic work of some kind, climbing and twisting through this framework as they enter and exit the stage. The aerial work itself is spectacular to watch. Titania's flowery bed is two hanging ropes of red silk, knotted together, which she climbs and makes into a hammock whilst her attending spirits sing her an Indian lullaby. She then cocoons herself inside the silks and hangs, like a red teardrop, high above the heads of the performers throughout the following scenes.

The forest itself is a place of passion. The flower juice with which Puck (Ajay Kumar) anoints the eyes of Lysander (Chandan Roy Sanyal) and Demetrius (Prasana Mahagamage) merely serves to inflame a lust and violence which is already there, aroused on their entrance into the forest. When Demetrius threatens Helena because she won't leave him alone, he pins her down and holds a sickle to her throat. When Lysander awakes to see Helena (Shanaya Rafaat) above him he does not fall sickly in love with her but becomes wildly lustful, pulling her to the floor, ripping her clothes. Whilst it may seem that both girls are in danger of being raped, this lust is not entirely one-sided. Hermia (Yuki Ellias) takes pleasure in rolling about with Lysander before asking him to sleep further away, and indeed it is one of the fairies who slaps his hand away from her breast as she is having trouble controlling herself. Helena might be pursuing Demetrius but that doesn't stop her from removing her top whilst sat astride Lysander as he declares his love for her. The interaction between the lovers is desperate and frenzied, building to a fevered intensity as Puck hands Lysander a sickle to fight Demetrius and then proceeds to entwine elastic around and between the four of them, effectively cutting off any quick exit they might take and leaving them to trip and weave in their assaults on one another.

Oberon (P R Jijoy) and Titania (Archana Ramaswamy) are almost playful in their disagreement, their banter a counterpoint to their physical actions. She might have forsworn his bed and company but she is still happy to roll around on the floor with him: an act that is extremely sensual but with an element of real danger as they enact their power struggles. There is a lot of rolling about in this production and it just oozes eroticism. The sexual act between Titania and Bottom is made clear as Oberon sits on a platform above them and watches. Bottom (Joy Fernandes) is large and jovial, and his transformation leaves him with woven ears, a cow bell, and a huge gourd as a phallus, which swings lustily as he moves and later on develops a suggestive red tip. At one point strings are attached to his limbs and the gourd, and he is pulled about as his actions are quite literally controlled by the fairies. He becomes animal in his actions and desires as well as his appearance, snorting and puffing and demanding food and caresses.

The fairies here are not fragile winged beings but robust spirits that dance and climb and laugh boisterously at their antics as they interfere with the humans. These spirits carry poles and are dressed in martial arts attire. On their first appearance after bursting through the wall they engage in a fight with Oberon. Puck, often portrayed as a young spirit, is here mature and strong, watching the action at all times, sometimes from in front of the stage. Dressed in red silks he is reminiscent of the Western image of a genie.

For all the freshness of this production it remains at heart the Shakespearean comedy that we know and love. It is comical in its actions and words, even when the words aren't in English. The mechanicals especially bring an earthy warmth and joy to the proceedings with their wholehearted enthusiasm for their own play and the parts of which they are so proud. Ultimately though, it is the all-pervading sensuality that lingers once the play is done. As Hippolyta and Theseus undress from their wedding splendour, stripping back to reveal their fairy costumes, the company engages in a sensual candlelit dance and song as Puck gives his final speech and sweeps the floor.

Director Tim Supple has brought his vision of a multilingual production of A Midsummer Night's Dream vibrantly to life, and the multi-talented and diversely skilled cast and crew make the extraordinary complexity of their performances appear absolutely effortless. The rumours are true: this play is groundbreaking. If you get the chance to see it, go. It may be that we will never see its like again.

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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