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Tim Supple - A Midsummer Night’s Dreamer

London’s Roundhouse can’t help but wear its counter-cultural heart on its recently regenerated sleeve. Ever since playwright Arnold Wesker founded it as free-thinking arts lab Centre 42 in 1964, the former railway engine shed off Camden Town has been a the spiritual home for what used to be called the underground en route to being absorbed into the mainstream. In 1966 it hosted the launch party of radical hippy magazine, International Times, a concert that featured Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine, still featuring Robert Wyatt. The Middle Earth club took up brief residence there; The Doors gave a now legendary lysergically charged performance; radical psychologist R.D. Laing held his Dialectics Of Liberation conference there.

Theatrically too, The Roundhouse opened itself up to new forms of experimentation which bridged the gap between eastern and western cultures. In 1968 Peter Brook produced US, his poetic indictment of the Vietnam war there; Kenneth Tynan opened his post-censorship review, Oh! Calcutta ; New York’s Living Theatre breezed in for a season; Ken Campbell brought his 24 hour production, The Warp, there. For a while, if anything spectacular was happening on the cutting edge, chances are The Roundhouse would be opening its doors for it.

What better venue, then, for the revival of Tim Supple’s epic multi-cultural production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play which has itself been interpreted as reflecting 1960s idylls of turning on, tuning in and dropping out. One hopes some of this spirit is carried over when the show arrives in the more orthodox surroundings of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre for its only dates in Scotland next week. Seen in March, though, Supple’s restaging of a work developed over two years in India in Sri Lanka at the instigation of The British Council, and originally played with a huge bi-lingual cast in eight languages in an open-air theatre in Delhi before being mounted in Stratford as part of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Collected Works season, is a major event.

“I’ve worked for this all my life”, says Supple with missionary zeal straight after a mid-week matinee during its Roundhouse run. “It’s easy to see now, but this is what I’ve been moving towards without me even knowing it.”

For sure, whether good karma or no, put simply, this is one of the sexiest Dreams you’re ever likely to see. As Supple tumbles his 23-strong troupe of actors, musicians and acrobats through a rich, gorgeous looking but still fragile tapestry, the play’s spiritual and the physical aspects don’t so much collide as straddle each other into barely contained submission to become one sensuous whole. The play’s comic moments too are fused with a refreshingly disarming sense of lascivious glee. Where Puck sports a Mr T style Mohican hair-cut, Bottom wears an even more striking cock-ring, while Peter Quince is a bearded Swami who could have stepped straight out of 1970s colonial India set sit-com, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

Yet, towards the production’s end, Bottom and his troupe of Mechanicals are given a dignity they’re rarely afforded in many home-grown productions which prefer to stereotype them as lower class clowns. Here, though, rather than resort to any flamboyant indulgences poached from rom-com happy endings, there’s a low-key elegance with the stage lit primarily by candles that reveal a real wonderland bubbling fragrantly beneath the play’s surface froth.

All of this is a most unBritish approach to a play regarded in most home-grown productions as something of a jape. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after all, is one of those plays which too often is presented as cosy heritage industry fare that’s as fruitily English as the strawberries and cream which undoubtedly accompanies it when played on country house lawns. Supple’s Dream, however, leans more towards the iconic approach of Peter Brook, whose own legendary 1970 take on it was a marker both for Brook and for British theatre, which was at last daring to leap beyond the proscenium arch and set text classics, museum piece approach. Significantly, Supple’s production most resembles Brook’s own epic exploration of eastern culture, The Mahabharata, a comparison which Supple welcomes.

“When I saw that play in Glasgow I’d never seen anything like it”, he says of Brook’s eight hour epic, which was the first piece of theatre to play in 1988 in the then deserted space which would go on to become Tramway. “It answered a calling that I have in my heart, which was something to do with the fact that in essence theatre for me is nothing to do with the theatres themselves in terms of any architectural veneer. Instead it has everything to do with what happens onstage. The Mahabharata surprised me slightly because of how un-polished it was. The spirit and body of theatre was there, but the glamour and west endiness, all that outer stuff, wasn’t.

“With this show”, Supple points out, “by touring it, I’m now risking turning it into a proscenium show. But for a Shakespeare, and for a British audience, I think what is very rare here is the combination of skills, between good acting, good speaking, good physical work and good musical work. It is that all round ensemble that I think Shakespeare really needs, but which I don’t think we tend to train ourselves, because our actors are generally trained in a realistic tradition. So when we want physical theatre we tend to draft in a different group who can’t act, but can do other things. So your typical Midsummer Night’s dream production in Britain either has a group of more physical actors playing the fairies, or more comedic actors playing the Mechanicals, or else it imposes a style imposed upon it. This stuff in this production is more natural to these performers, this multi-faceted nature of their skills.

“I think another mould that it breaks outside of how it’s normally done here is that since the Peter Brook production it’s become a highly conceptualised play. You have to come up with an idea. But even though ideas bore me in that way, there have been good productions in that tradition. The RSC’s done a couple. But this is more raw and in the flesh.”

India does seem to keep on invading Supple’s work. While artistic director of the Young Vic he produced a version of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and has since worked on adaptations of two Salman Rushdie books, Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, and, for the RSC, Midnight’s Children. Even before these, Supple’s work leant towards fantastical narratives such as those he adapted from Grimm’s fairy-tales, a penchant for purer forms of story-telling which lends itself both to Shakespeare and to the eastern oral tradition. It’s a trip that began at Brighton’s Theatre Royal, when a wide-eyed Supple was enthralled by a production of Peter Pan.

“What excited me wasn’t the theatre itself”, he insists. “It was the essence of the story-telling. That’s continued through everything I’ve done, and is something to do with connecting with some feeling of making a story come alive onstage. There are rare moments you get when you can feel an audience connecting to a story very directly, and out of that I’ve kept on returning to narrative story-telling theatre. The Indian connection is obviously because that kind of way of making theatre is much more alive in that culture, and to become the sort of director I want to be, I have to keep looking outside of the world that’s familiar to me.”

Edinburgh Festival Theatre may be a long way from The Roundhouse, but then, The Roundhouse is a long way from Delhi. Wherever this Dream happens, the doors of perception, it seems, are still open.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, October 23-27

The Herald, October 16th 2007

ends

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