Directing a Dream

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After Shakespeare in Malayalam (and more), Tim Supple is taking on Arabian Nights. Get ready for a 1,001 interpretations

For the initial five minutes, everything was a blur. It was as if the ears could not believe they were hearing Sinhalese, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali in a Shakespearean setting. And then, miraculously, the languages didn’t seem alien any longer. As the extraordinary skill of the actors and musicians brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream alive on stage, every other thought was lost in the sheer joy of performance. The balance between the ancient and the modern, the elegant refinement of form and the exhilarating rawness of street art infused the play with intoxicating energy. Audiences were simply spellbound as Tim Supple wove his magic in India last year.

A theatre and opera director, Supple has acquired quite a reputation for breathing life into familiar stories. His illustrious career includes stints with the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK. He is also co-director of Dash Arts, for which he and his team produce new works that challenge the way we see the world. Now, Supple is all set to work on an epic production of Arabian Nights, which will see him journey through Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran and India this year to look for a suitable cast.

“Just like Shakespeare, Arabian Nights has always been there for me. It is a rich collection, as varied and unpredictable as humanity itself,” says Supple. “There is so much misunderstanding about the Middle East in the West. I wanted to understand the place through theatre, so I chose Arabian Nights,” he adds. The production will have smatterings of Arabic, English, Persian and Hindi languages, among others.

Though lavish sets and vivid colours have almost become a trademark of his work, Supple maintains that he likes to work with simple theatrical spaces. His greatest pleasure lies in creating a special visual experience with limited means. “It’s a kind of a trick of the eye; not a cheat, but theatre magic. Say, if I show you a piece of paper and ask you to imagine a silk carpet in a way that arouses your imagination, you might actually believe I showed you a silk carpet. That’s what I call good design,” says Supple.

A lot depends on the text that is being adapted for stage; for instance, the sets for Grimms’ fairytales were tough and restrained in palette while those for Salman Rushdie’s Haroun were vibrant. Appropriateness, clarity and honest engagement with the text is what he aims for.

He’s learnt to work around the challenge of taking something written in one form and converting it. Supple’s interpretations of Maxim Gorky’s works, and of Twelfth Night and Oedipus Rex stand witness to his skill. “It is less difficult when the original is already dramatic. Stories by Grimm Brothers are like small dramas, the same holds true for Ovid’s metamorphoses,” he explains.

However, the more literary something is, the harder the adaptation becomes as the author explores the inner world of characters and creates imaginative sweeping scenes that are not natural to theatre. “So, Jungle Book is hard, and hardest of all must be Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,” he adds.

Supple’s love for storytelling goes back to his childhood when he would dramatise stories for his family. “I still want to go back to how it felt to dramatise stories when I was seven. Entirely free, engaged, exhilarated with the feeling of being alive.”

Supple began his travels in India in 2005, looking to understand the immense variety of theatre practices here. “During my travels, I decided to work with performers from all over India, accepting their differences in background, tradition and language. And truly, the journey has been inspiring, thrilling, difficult, life-changing and fun.”