Anglo-Indian Shakespearean Humor

For Londoners, who live in a city where one in three inhabitants is foreign-born, there's nothing more banal than exotica. Except, perhaps, for yet another production of a Shakespeare comedy. So it's testimony to British director Tim Supple that even jaded Londoners are surprised by his rich and strange new production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which re-imagines the comedy as a bawdy romp through rural India. Athens becomes a village built on a stage of red earth hauled to North London from Rajasthan. Mismatched lovers couple and recouple in a jungle of bamboo scaffolding and scarlet silks. Most controversially, the dialogue tumbles out in eight South Asian languages, and English, spoken by 23 Indian and Sri Lankan actors. Somehow, it comes together intelligibly.

"Dream" has a long history of association with India. The country is embedded in the text, with fairy monarchs Oberon and Titania quarrelling over Titania's adoption of an Indian boy. It's probably the Subcontinent's most-performed Shakespeare play, notes Ananda Lal of Kolkata's Jadavpur University. There have been numerous translations into Indian languages—including one into ancient Sanskrit text—and South Asian productions of the comedy date back more than two centuries. One 19th-century version styled Oberon and Titania as Hindu gods.

What's particularly ambitious—and controversial—about Supple's production is that it draws on actors, languages and performance traditions from across the Subcontinent. His "Dream" gathers Bollywood actors and classically trained dancers on the same stage as folk drummers and child acrobats from the Delhi slums. The linguistic diversity is dizzying: Titania and Oberon spar in Malayalam, Lysander woos Hermia in Bengali and Helena pursues Demetrius in the polished English of the Mumbai elite—only to be rebuffed in the Sri Lankan language of Sinhala. Opting for a polyglot production, says Supple, known in Britain for his innovative work at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, wasn't a political choice. It was simply a matter of picking the best performer for each role—regardless of native tongue.

To be sure, the play's original text is often lost amid the tangle of languages. But the actors' raw emotion and powerful physicality succeed in filling in the gaps. A mustachioed Puck strides around the stage like a boxer, in leather straps and a red loincloth. Supple's fairies don't float on gossamer wings, but stomp and shin up ropes. The choreography draws on Indian classical and folk traditions as well as kalaripayattu, a martial-arts technique.

The production met rave reviews when it toured India last year—as well as its share of criticism. Some opposed the use of the purportedly less-literary languages of southern India. Shakespeare should be done in English, Supple says he was told, or at least in the more elegant Hindi or Bengali. More troubling were accusations that the production's focus on animal sexuality only played into Orientalist clichés of the mysterious East, says Supple—"this idea of India as a dark and sexual place, home of the Kama Sutra."

Politically correct or not, the sex isn't stylized. Supple's lovers thrust and roll in the red earth, breathlessly unbuckling belts. When Bottom—played magnificently by the Mumbai comedian Joy Fernandes—becomes a rutting, braying ass, a pendulous gourd appears between his legs. Tossing her hip-length hair, Archana Ramaswamy's Titania plays her drug-induced passion for Bottom not as flirtation but as a frank urge for bestiality.

With its focus on spectacle over poetry, and its reliance on a range of languages, this is the Bard for a globalized world, which values immediate information over the subtleties of iambic pentameter. Much poetry is lost in this production, but what's gained is the molten heart of the play: a celebration of urges that aren't literate or rational, but are entirely human nonetheless.