“Khwaab-Sa”: Shakespeare with masala and magic

By Naeem Kapadia

(800 words, 6-minute read)

Atul Kumar is no stranger to Shakespeare. The artistic director of Mumbai-based group The Company Theatre was first seen here in 2009 in the title role of Hamlet: The Clown Prince, which featured a troupe of clowns attempting to stage Shakespeare’s tragedy with a good dose of madness and mayhem. Five years ago, he presented a Hindi version of Twelfth Night – a delightful, folksy affair that brought together the best traditions of East and West. He’s now back at the Esplanade’s Kalaa Utsavam (Indian Festival of Arts) with another well-loved classic of the Bard’s.

Khwaab-Sa, Kumar’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sees the company push its abilities even further. This tale of squabbling lovers, magic and mystery that takes place in both the human and fairy worlds is presented as a shimmering genre-bending tapestry that retains the basic structure of the plot and infuses it with interesting new elements.

English director Tim Supple gave us one of the defining productions of Dream of recent years: an enchanting three-dimensional spectacle that unfolded in seven languages and a variety of art forms including acrobatics and mime. It demonstrated that one did not need to understand what was being said on stage to be enchanted by this feisty comedy of errors. Khwaab-Sa, likewise, follows in the same vein as such a production, and pushes things a step further: to liberate the story from language itself.

(L-R): Demetrius (Kumar Priyabrata Panigrahi), Puck (Ronita Mookerji), Hermia (Sahiba Singh), Lysander (Prashant More), Helena (Diya Naidu). Image: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Hence we have a production which thrives on dance and music. The lovers – Hermia (Sahiba Singh), Lysander (Prashant More), Helena (Diya Naidu) and Demetrius (Kumar Priyabrata Panigrahi) – communicate entirely through contemporary dance. They glide, wordlessly, across the bare stage in a mesmerising romantic rhombus, conjuring up the freshness and urgency of young love laced with pangs of desire, jealousy and anger. Iconic lines from the original play are projected at intervals but remain second fiddle to the sensuous physical vocabulary at play. There is some spectacular choreography work by Diya Naidu that has the audience almost breathless at times, swayed by the sheer vitality of these characters.

Vitality is also evident in Ronita Mookerji’s effervescent Puck, who prances about like a nimble yogini. Giggling like a mischievous schoolgirl, Mookerji flits between the human and fairy worlds with elfin grace, cheekily administering a love potion through a lingering kiss, joining the lovers in a magnetic dance sequence or pulling a canopy over the stage to transform the background into a shimmering kaleidoscope of colour.

Abhay Mahajan as Bajarbattu (Bottom). Image: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay


Elsewhere, the quarrelling fairy King Oberon (Gagandev Singh Riar) and Queen Titania (Anamika Tiwari) banter operatically in raag. Dressed in handsome traditional garb, they channel a classic Indian aesthetic that contrasts nicely with the arresting modern dance routines. The action itself is punctuated by live electronic music by composer and sound artist Anurag Shanker that breaks us in and out of consciousness. The result is a visual and aural cocktail that makes the play feel both classic and contemporary, tangible and otherworldly.

The actual dialogue itself is presented in a pidgin Hindi laced with gibberish – something that we can almost understand but which remains fuzzy at the seams. This works especially well with the mechanicals, a bunch of bumbling workmen with long moustaches and short attention spans who robustly deliver the comedy of the evening. Tasked with staging a romantic skit for an upcoming royal wedding, they boisterously break the fourth wall, scampering on and off the stage like a bunch of turbaned puppies. Abhay Mahajan’s Bajarbattu (Bottom) is a particular riot, the cocky tailor intent on portraying not only the lead role but every other one as well. The final showcase, which has the group forgetting lines, props and even the name of the heroine, has the crowd in stitches.

Puck (Mookerji) looking in on lovers in a tangle. Image: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Kumar imparts an admirable economy to the production, keeping the action tight and the visual tableaus enchanting. In just over a hundred minutes, we work our way through the plot while taking many delightful detours into the world of song and dance. Liberties have most certainly been taken with the story and things have been mixed around but this is madcap, masala theatre at its best, embracing Indian and Western traditions and making no bones about daring to be different.

Kumar’s journey over the years has been a multifaceted but in many ways singular one, exploring different methods of telling a story, be it mime in Hamlet, folk theatre in Twelfth Night or dance in Khwaab-Sa. It’s a way of experiencing Shakespeare that is both irreverent and enchanting, funny and fresh. At the end of the day, Khwaab-Sa is just that: a dream-like escape into another realm and a chance to see a familiar world through a different lens. As the cast sit together in the closing montage, buoyed by candles and mutual camaraderie, we too feel as if we have just woken up from a long, delightful slumber.

Khwaab-Sa was directed by Atul Kumar of Mumbai’s The Company Theatre and presented as part of the Esplanade’s Kalaa Utsavam (Indian Festival of Arts) 2017. It ran from 17-19 November 2017 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

Guest Contributor Naeem Kapadia is a finance lawyer and passionate advocate of the arts. He has acted in and directed student drama productions in both London and Singapore. He has been writing about theatre for over a decade on his personal blog Crystalwords and publications such as London student newspaper The Beaver, Singapore arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore daily newspaper TODAY. Naeem enjoys cooking, travel and running.

About the author(s)

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Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (crystalwords.blogspot.com), has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

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