You know it’s an Elizabethan classic when a lithe sprite leaps three feet in the air and declares, “Aami Moon Moon Sen!” (I’m Moon Moon Sen!) You may not find its exact counterpart in the First Folio - on its last fortnight in India! - but Shakespeare, like Caliban’s isle, is full of noises. Sometimes, those noises are slapstick Bengali.
That Moon-Moon joke might sounds like it belongs to Piya Behrupiya, the big, warm-hearted version of Twelfth Night that made Atul Kumar and The Company Theatre world-famous, but it appears, instead, in Khwaab Sa, their electric adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has just concluded an opening run in Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi.
If Piya Behrupiya is an adorable, clever shaggy dog, Khwaab Sa is a wolf with teeth. Much as we’ve loved the former, Khwaab Sa is remarkable for how austerely it treats the original, cutting out a great deal more fat from Dream than Piya does from Twelfth Night. All the trouble bubbling under the surface of the Dream - unwilling lovers, power couples jockeying for dominance, and some pretty weird erotic stuff - leaps to the fore here. This isn’t difficult to spot: even adaptations like the goofy Kevin Kline movie, or Tim Supple’s Pondi-hippie production are brimming with the sexual force of the play.
If Piya Behrupiya is an adorable, clever shaggy dog, Khwaab Sa is a wolf with teeth.
But it turns out this works better without words. Here, four brilliant dancers are freed of their rambling, sometimes laborious original dialogue, and dance with each other instead. A hybrid, hypnotic score accompanies Diya Naidu (Helena)’s expressive choreography as they chase each other, elope into the forest, fight, make up, and do some beautiful, nasty things: as in the text, there’s plenty of stylised sexual violence to go around.
The scenes in the forest are spliced with a more recognisable form of low comedy, when the bumbling village players take off into the woods to practice their silly play-within-a-play. (We don’t blame Titania for being fooled into an infatuation with Bottom the Weaver, played with a totally arch sweetness by Abhay Mahajan; we kind of fell for him too.) They’ll make you hold your stomach laughing, which is weird because they aren’t speaking any recognisable dialect of Hindi at all. Kumar’s translator (and one of the Players) Saurabh Nayyar, has worked on translating the English to a kind of gibberish that will make you think it’s Marwari or Bhojpuri, but is both and neither at once.
With Piya Behrupiya, Kumar turned his audience into performers: if his lok natak style was a clap-back back to the bawdy form of 16th-century London comedy, it also made us his peanut gallery, enchanted into laughing at really broad jokes (in really broad Hindi) about mistaken identity, gender-swapping and mega-drunk dudes. The Dream is quite different. It’s visceral, but also cerebral: you’ll catch yourself looking at it in moments of wonder and sometimes awe. This time, the musicians who occupy the back of the stage are sentinels, not actors; a dreamy landscape of drapes clashes with harsh, geometric lighting to produce an unearthly world, big enough for anyone to get lost in, with only the moon for company. And Moon Moon Sen.
Getting there: Khwaab Sa, directed by Atul Kumar, adapted by Rachel D’Souza, choregraphed by Diya Naidu, music directed by Anurag Shanker. Next show at Utsav, Aravalli Biodiversity Park, on March 10; follow the Khwaab Sa Facebook page for more tour dates.
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