Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pucking brilliant

Owing to all the RUHSA shennanigans coinciding with Pongal, which is the three day Tamil festival involving cow decorating, coloured chalk floor patterns and bull racing, it was a good time to get away. There was a fabulous interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream touring in Bangalore, directed by an Englishman, Tim Supple, drawing from all sources of traditional, modern, formal and street Indian theatre, so we decided to go.

Once again I found myself on the train, biddledeeing to Bangalore. This time, despite being told I was in the Ladies compartment, and paying a supplement of 20p for the priviledge, I was in a packed mixed carriage mostly full of laughing, chattering muslim men who all seemed to know each other. Protecting their wives from the horror and dishonour of sitting next to a strange man, and the wives being occupied with looking after the children and the widowed mothers, all the men sat on the aisle seats, leaning across to each other at the crossroads, discussing, laughing, slapping thighs and exchanging snacks with noisy freedom. Occasional timid taps, eliciting brief glances back towards their families, would barely ripple the torrent of male ebullience.

The women sat in purdah, pale hands stroking childrens' liberated arms; sometimes a glint revealing the direction of a look. I noticed how hard work it was to eat a packet of crisps when wearing a burka. It reminded me of a cake in a play which, unsure of the scene it was supposed to be in, slid backwards and forwards under the curtains whilst disembodied hands debated its destination. There is an assumption that nothing but unparrallelled beauty lies behind the veil. Catching an unexpected glimpse during a quick adjustment revealed no kohl-eyed houri, but a pleasant-faced ordinary looking woman with intelligent eyes. It was interesting to observe this gender separation in the light of events at RUHSA. Respect and freedom always make uncomfortable bed-fellows, but here their ill-suitedness is much more apparent.

In Bangalore, the play was an extraordinary experience. (Click on title link to see the advert). The director spent a year travelling around mostly South India learning about Indian theatre cultures and recruiting actors from all around. The result is spectacular. I had never heard about it (I don't think it made the Coro in Ulverston), but it had a sell-out tour in the UK twice since 2006.

It is spoken in 8 different languages, English, and seven Indian languages. Four from South India - Kannada, Tamil, Malayallam and Marathi - another from Sri Lanka- Singhalese - and two fromm North India - Hindi and Bengali. Each actor speaks in his mother tongue and English. As Shakespeare is pretty linguistically inaccessible anyway for the average bod (myself included), the concentration levels required are no greater. In fact it becomes a little bit like watching Pingu - you are totally convinced you can understand what they are saying anyway. It was fabulous to have fully gusty aufdience laughter after some of the Indian lines, it provided fabulous glue between the switching dialects.

The staging was intriguing. A bamboo scafffolding covered in white paper provided the backdrop to a sandy-floored semi-circle with ropes and silken sheets hanging down. As the play starts set in the human world, the acting is prosaic and posturing. The players are dressed in stiff clothing and moved formally. The Athenians rules and dictates are established. When the lovers Hermia and Lysander run away to the forest, as the story descends further into fantasy, the movements become more fluids, the clothing becomes freer and all the dimensions of the stage space are used. The fairies, led by a brilliant Puck (with a very cute, tiny pot-belly to add to his sense of mischief) burst through the paper on the scaffolding at all levels and scramble on the frame like bees on a comb. As Titania's fairies and Oberon's sprites clash, with clattering sticks they roll on the floor, dust clouding in the lights and with astonishing agility they use the rope and silks to create the illusion of moving through the air as acrobatically as mosquitos

Each actor brought a different kind of theatre to their role. There were dancers with elegant movements, comics with grandiose gestures, actors with dignified stature, gymnasts with dazzling bravery and straight-men with perfect timing. It was wonderful seeing this with an Indian audience, because it emphasised and highlighted how each language created a cultural difference between characters. And it was so funny. Really, very, very funny, yaar.

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