The London chronicles continue, although the vacation has ended. But vestiges of the experience find their way to this blog as I recount a few experiences and impressions from my trip. I am looking forward to talking a little about the things that surprised me about London –little day-to-day things– but I first want to write a few words on the multilingual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we saw at the Roundhouse Theatre on March 14th. I’ll be schematic because I am too tired to do otherwise right now, and I rather put something down and keep blogging than wait for some ever elusive time to write a more leisurely post. Before you read on, especially if you’ve found this post via an internet search, I’d like you to know that I’m not a professor of English literature or an expert on Shakespeare.
We were surprised to discover, in the first few moments of this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that we were not watching another “let’s set Shakespeare in a different time period or costumes” production. The play was more challenging than that because only 10% or so of it was in English. The rest of it was in several Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese and Sanskrit. We went in expecting an “exotic” and colorful production peopled by Indian actors reciting the familiar words in English and discovered instead something truly new.
What does it mean to estrange Shakespeare from English? How does it affect our reception and understanding of Shakespeare? The potential objections are obvious: The whole point of Shakespeare IS the English language. How can we appreciate what we don’t understand? Etc. Frustration would be understandable under the circumstance because this play is arguably the most familiar and popular of the Bard’s works. But I think we can move beyond these issues and really appreciate director Tim Supple’s multilingual Midsummer as something special. Let me explain briefly.
In “Language and the Dream”, an essay featured in the play’s program, Ananda Lal of the Centre for Advanced Studies in English at Jadavpur University in Kolkata offers invaluable insights for approaching the play and its linguistic originality. Lal begins by noting how popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been in India since the nineteenth century, and how it has repeatedly been “indigenised” and reimagined by figures such as Satishchandra Chatterjee, Utpal Dutt and Habib Tanvir. Most fascinating to me what Lal’s point that, in the classical Indian theatre, “manuscripts are not exclusively in Sanskrit, but frequently utilise various ancient Prakrits in the same play according to the situation.” In other words, apart from being a fact of contemporary existence, multilingualism has literary and theatrical traditions that hearken back centuries in India. In this context, a multilingual, Indian Midsummer is not as strange as it may appear at first glance. In Lal’s words, “Multilingual theatre…has every empirical reason to not only exist, but to unite the diverse country and thrive.”
Ok, so on one level, Supple’s Midsummer is an experiment that memorably and entertainingly incorporates the play into the cultural heterogeneity of India. Nothing wrong with that… it is actually an innovation and an interesting de-centering of Shakespeare, who now moves from the center of the cultural metropolis of empire into the margin of the colonial experience (because, let us not forget, that the English language and culture is irrevocably a part of modern India). In de-centering Shakespeare we free him from notions of national purity and transform him into a channel for the expression of new voices and cultures. In making Shakespeare local to India or to the many Indias conveyed by different languages, the Bard is both culturally relocated to a specific part of the world and sublimated into something more universal, something capable of transcending the barriers of language and the colonial condition.
Secondly, the eradication of English and monolingualism as the determining factor of a Shakespeare play makes English speakers question how we define and understand Shakespeare in the first place. Is a Shakespeare play primarily to be understood as the sum of the poet’s words in English or the sum of his invention as a creator of scenes and plots and themes that transcend language? Supple’s version may estrange English speakers from Shakespeare at first, but then we discover that we are able to experience the play on new, different levels. We see it chromatically, musically, in terms of choreography, stage design and acting. Freed from English, we discover a new Shakespeare, one that is constructed out of visual metaphor and action. And surprise, it is wonderful and hypnotic, it is entertaining and moving.
This play will always be special to me. My first acting gig ever, sometime between the first and fifth grade at the Sunny View School in Torremolinos Spain, was playing Bottom in Midsummer, something which I was not pleased about. Seeing Tim Supple’s reimagining of the play at the Roundhouse was a surprising and fulfilling experience. I wish we had had more time to explore the Camden area.