Director Tim Supple talks about the inspiration for his production of the play featuring a cast of actors from India and Sri Lanka.

Helena (Shanaya Rafaat) enters and Hermia (Yuki Ellias) tells her that she will run away with Lysander (Chandan Roy Sanyal).
A Midsummer Night's Dream (2006), directed by Tim Supple
Photo by Suzanne Worthington © RSC Browse and license our images

An interview with Director Tim Supple

How did you put together your company?

This Indian Dream is created from the skills and personality of a unique group of performers - 22 individuals drawn from across India and Sri Lanka who reflect the remarkable diversity of contemporary Indian theatre. This is a theatre community that draws on ancient and modern theatre practice; on highly developed physical, verbal and musical arts; that is steeped in both the theatre of poetry and the theatre of the street. These are performers of different spoken languages and of a great range of social and economic experiences. The production will be created for a tour of India and Sri Lanka and will play in both indoor and outdoor venues across ten cities. 

 Do you have an overall aim for the production?

Like every company that tells this most rich and satisfying story, our aim is simple: to give it life. The dream is exciting, strange, magical, erotic, musical, fierce, thoughtful, true and joyous. It offers a deeply satisfying experience of harmony gained through the painful path of conflict and confusion. It is several plays woven with great skill into one: the tale of love; the spectacle of the supernatural and the piercing portrayal of class and caste. We search for the truth and equal value of each. It is in the fine balance and wonderful play between them that the Dream comes to life. 

 Why did you pick A Midsummer Night's Dream in particular?

The Dream brings different worlds together: mythical aristocracy, young wealthy lovers, workmen from the city and the supernatural. It embraces the great differences found in Indian performance. The project is a rare collaboration: a British director with Indian performers and many different Indian performers with each other. I feel that the performers illuminate the play and that the play excites the performers. I have always wanted to direct the Dream - to tell that story, imagine that most imaginative of dreamscapes and share it with an audience. To do so with performers who can bring so much that is unfamiliar to me - who can see and play the play in ways I would never experience in Britain - is an inspiration. And we all need inspiration! Through this Dream I aimed to learn from the performers and I hope they learned from me. I aimed to create a piece of theatre that surprises and excites the audience who sees it. 

Why did you decide to do this particular play for India?

Simply because I feel that India illuminates the Dream; that the great and rich variety of performers, traditions, approaches bring it to life in a way that excites me and that I have rarely seen and always yearned for. I did not look to 'set the dream in an Indian context' - there is no attempt to transfer or super-impose a set of cultural signs on top of a play by Shakespeare. The performers are my primary collaborators: it is their Dream I wanted to see, the Dream that is brought to life by skills, knowledge and theatrical instincts that others brought to the room. Through the performers, I found the choreography and the musical 'composition'. Page 2 I also hoped that we can get closer to the full canvas of the play with Indian and Sri Lankan performers – in a theatrical culture with such a rich and vital convergence of the past and the present; the physical and the verbal; the sacred and the profane; the comedic and the tragic; the magical and the real. Mythic warrior kings and queens; daughters as goods, owned by their fathers; modern lovers cast in archetypal mould; exile in the forest; the reality of class and caste; artisans making theatre and of course the supernatural, the magical, the hilarious, humans transformed. 

What parallels or discords do you see between the themes in Dream and how they relate to India and the UK?

There are different levels of resonance in Dream for us today. On an immediate, social level, there is the patriarchy and authoritarianism with which Egeus attempts to impose his will on his daughter and there is the friction, playfulness and truth with which Shakespeare portrays the distance between the aristocracy and the workmen. On a visceral and emotional level, the Dream is a great drama of human emotions and relationships - the agonies and flippancy of love; the shifting ground between master and servant, friend and rival, husband and wife; the extraordinary detail etched within Quince, Bottom and their fellow actors. Here, certainly, Shakespeare achieves a truth that defies time and place. On another level, the Dream most famously animates our relationship with the unknown and unknowable: the world as it is when we are asleep: dreams, fairies, knavish sprites and those with a magical influence on our actions and emotions; the spirit world of myth and the unconscious world of modern psychology. It offers a remarkable version of an eternal fantasy: how would it be to meet, know and love the other side? And it asks the most basic of all questions; why do we do what we do? The last level on which the Dream connects with us is the one that gives it such joy in the theatre: it is of course about theatre itself. It is about how theatre works, why theatre is great and why it can be boring and how endlessly, delightfully playful theatre can be. In the language and actions of the characters throughout, in their relationships with each other and with us, in the repeated use of spectators within scenes and of course in the great finale of the mechanicals' play, the fairies' blessing and Puck's epilogue, Shakespeare makes a play that is at once about society, us, our imaginations and the theatre. These levels resonate in both India and the UK and with us now as they did with the Elizabethans. The emphasis will shift, different things will resonate with different force in different time and place, but taken overall the potential of the Dream to stir, excite and enthral remains. 

Why have you incorporated different art forms?

My intention was simply to work with those performers who excited me the most and who seemed most able to bring each character to life on stage. As I travelled and met and worked with people, it became clear that it would be wrong to restrict myself to those who acted in English and in ways that were familiar to me from the UK. This would result in a production performed by people from a very limited source of experience and theatrical language. In India there is such wealth of skill and knowledge, reaching back thousands of years and embracing so many different ways of making theatre, it quickly became clear that this richness must be embraced. Page 3 The fact is that our ability to perform Shakespeare in the UK, while manifestly strong, is based on largely realistic and verbal traditions. Both this realism, where emotional, physical and social experience is brought to life with rigorous truth, and verbal poetry, where the text is shared with force and dexterity, are essential in Shakespeare and will be at the heart of what I take to India as a director. But there are many other possibilities in Shakespeare as we know. His theatrical culture would have been closer to stylised, ritualistic and spontaneous performance than we often acknowledge. And it is here that we have much to learn from Indian performers. The ability to find truth in stylisation, life in the ritual and beauty and form in spontaneity are all abilities that abound and that will enrich the playing of Shakespeare. In the cast, we have dancers, modern realistic actors, musicians, street artists, performers trained in forms 2000 years old and others who have taken these forms and adapted them into new forms. This is the natural make-up of a group of Indian performers for Shakespeare. India is a hybrid of a dazzling range of influences and so is Shakespeare. This Dream is constantly alive, never predictable, always honest, told as if for the first time and performed by an ensemble that offers an experience of the breadth of humanity on show in the fiction of the play.  

What differences are their between UK and Indian audiences?

In India the full production plays largely to middle-class, well educated audiences who know Shakespeare with a greater ferocity than UK audiences but are less used to contemporary interpretations and foreign language Shakespeare. This is quite daunting of course because it can be harder to break the ice with Indian audiences. We tried reaching a different audience by taking a shorter, more improvised version onto the street. Indian audiences recognise the different languages spoken on stage and this has a meaning that is not be there in the UK. The choices of when characters speak in English or not and which characters speak in the languages of the South, of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka - and which in the more dominant languages - Hindi, Urdu and Marathi – has a greater impact in India. Similarly, audiences in India recognise the different approaches of the performers and see more clearly where they come from than UK audiences. In the end, we want to transcend all these reactions and we attempt to get all audiences everywhere to engage in it as a story they are watching for the first time. This innocence and simplicity of response results in the greatest pleasure. 

How does it feel to perform in Stratford-upon-Avon?

Perhaps more to the company than to me as I've grown up with Stratford easily to hand and I'm a bit resistant to the sentimentality and deference that can come with British institutions! But I would in no way be flippant about what it might mean to performers from so far away, who bring a deep respect for Shakespeare, to perform for the RSC in Stratford. 

Did the prospect of performing in Stratford affect the way you approached the play?

Yes, but only subliminally. It felt very important for me and for the company that this production should be created for both India and the UK. To me this means that I had to keep a double awareness as I worked: what feels right in India also needed to feel right in Stratford. As they are two very different theatre cultures, this wasn't easy. But that need to achieve that dual quality of rightness, to succeed in both places, creates the benchmark for the show. A truly Shakespearean production could achieve it. 

 If you had to summarise, what does Shakespeare mean to you?

The greatest demands and greatest rewards theatre can ask and offer in return. 

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