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A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a garden near you

30 September 2009

Why do Shakespeare’s dramas still speak so clearly to us? What is it that has encouraged them to be translated into so many different languages and mediums, and reinterpreted to address shifting political and cultural contexts across the globe? – Richard III in business suits exposing corrupt corporate culture; The Tempest as treatise against colonialism. In Indonesia under Suharto, and in other nations with similarly draconian governments, contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s political intrigues and tragedies, provided theatre makers and audiences with opportunities to engage critically with the specific contemporary realities of their own governments, under cover of Shakespeare’s timeless universality.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays have clearly lasted and travelled better than others. A new production of one of the most popular, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by theatre fireFLY, is soon to grace Ubud as part of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which runs from October 7 – 11.

Featuring parallel plot lines and a play within a play, in its original form it is one of Shakespeare’s more structurally complex creations, a tale about love that moves between a group of young, high-caste lovers, a troupe of amateur actors (‘the mechanicals’), and the Fairy kingdom, ruled over by Oberon and his Queen Titiana, with Puck their mischievous servant wreaking havoc in the wings. Set mostly in the forest, a wild place as yet ‘untamed’ and therefore outside the control of ordinary people and their rulers, it explores, among other things, how the magical realm pulls the strings of flesh-and-blood destinies and desires.

fireFLY’s slightly abridged cross-cultural adaptation, which features local and foreign, and professional and amateur cast and crew, including a talented group of schoolchildren, takes place in a local setting and incorporates a Balinese worldview to talk about interconnectedness and relationships: between people, between communities, between the seen and unseen worlds, and between people and the environment, in particular, people’s complex relationships with water and waterways.

River spirits

Ubud and its surrounds are crisscrossed by deep, verdant river ravines and one of the district’s most defining characteristics, as with many other parts of Bali, is the sight and sound of running water. Even underfoot, the cracked and missing slabs of pavement that regularly threaten to gobble up unsuspecting pedestrians reveal deep gutters green with fernery flowing just below the surface. The gigantic section of collapsed road near the market on Jalan Raya, which is currently disrupting flows of another kind, should be evidence enough of the extent of this system of subterranean canals, drains and streams barely subdued beneath the veneer of asphalt and concrete.

Balinese Hinduism has many prohibitions regarding rivers, which are considered the homes of river spirits. These beliefs coincide with the Indian Hindu concept of ‘The Sacred Grove’, the religious designation of places that humans are not allowed to occupy or cultivate because they are the domain of nature spirits. In recent years, we have become aware that these areas are also preserves of biodiversity and remnant ecosystems that have vanished elsewhere. As such they are home to valuable medicinal plants, predators for pests and corridors of vegetation necessary for the health of the water flowing down them. In this way, whether we believe in nature spirits or not, traditional knowledge and local stories can be seen to have helped preserve the environment. But as traditional values fall away, and economic pressures and those of population growth encroach, those rivers are in danger of losing both their magical, spiritual power and their biodiversity, to be reduced to dumping grounds for our rubbish. For Rehane Abrahams, creative director of fireFLY, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in which fairies (‘river spirits’ by another name) play a central role, provides an ideal vehicle to raise questions about humanity’s relationship with the environment, including: how might the river spirits be affected by all this?

To be or not to be

The play clearly presents enormous possibilities for an out-of-doors, site-specific production. The gardens around the ARMA Museum, with their mix of organic, built and cultivated environments, will provide an especially atmospheric and appropriate venue, one that immediately complicates persistent binary distinctions between nature and culture that have become much more difficult to maintain since Shakespeare first put quill to parchment.

In keeping with the theme of our ever-evolving relationship with nature, the fairies’ costumes will be made of a mix of natural fibres, synthetic fabrics and found objects.  Innovative music and video installation designer saKAna will integrate the natural surroundings of the ARMA water gardens with video projections, combining the organic with the technical to create a visual feast for the senses.  The play will invite audiences to re-think divisions – conflicts, dichotomies and opposites on many fronts –  that can be resolved harmoniously through a more experimental fusion of seemingly disparate ideas.  “To express that visually we want to create a world where art and physical meet” says saKAna who is also composing a soundscape that will include digital loops, once again emphasising the potential synthesis of new forms.

Theatre as community

The underlying philosophical foundation of all of fireFLY’s productions is a commitment to the transformative potential of theatre, especially one that questions the boundaries between audience and performer. fireFLY does this first of all by directly engaging members of the local community as actors and theatre-makers (and giving equal recognition to the wide range of tasks and skills required to launch a production, from conceptualisation to set-construction to promotion); and second, by highlighting the mutuality of the performance experience, seeing it as a form of interactive engagement in which everyone present is a participant, rather than one that is content to maintain distinct borders.

Rehane’s own performance history happily traverses apparently disparate theatrical modes: she is both an accomplished Shakespearean actor, and an activist and community worker who has successfully used theatre, and Shakespeare in particular, to mobilise groups of often marginalised people and, in the process, develop skills, new visions and confidence. She grew up in South Africa under the brutal apartheid regime, and it was there that as a teenager she first developed an active interest in the theatre and politics of protest. She has also, therefore, experienced first-hand the real danger and power of theatre that challenges the status quo; its joys but also its risks.

While A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the lush surrounds of ARMA is a long way from a street performance before the barbed wire and bullets of apartheid South Africa, the spirit that moves it is the same The theme for this years Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is ‘Suka Duka’, an Indonesian communal ethos that can be roughly translated as solidarity and compassion, and no-one seems better placed to address these concerns than Shakespeare in the hands of this company of adventurous and socially-committed theatre-makers.

Starring well known actors I Ketut Rina, Jane Chen and Rucina Ballinger,  Midsummer Night’s Dream will premiere in the beautiful water gardens of the ARMA Museum and Resort on Wednesday, October 7 at 7 PM.  There will be a student only matinee on Thursday morning at 10:30 AM and two further evening performances on Saturday and Sunday, October 10th and 11th at 7PM.  Advanced bookings are strongly recommended and can be made at or by SMS to 081353005985.

This article originally appeared in the Bali Advertiser. Used with permission.

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