William Shakespeare’s old English might not be anybody’s first language, but we owe a great deal of debt to the playwright who not only penned some of our most commonly used idioms, but actually invented over 1,700 words that are still used in the English language today. Words like ‘dwindle’, ‘ode’, ‘sanctimonious’, ‘overblown’, and even ‘skim milk’ can all be traced back to the Bard of Stratford on Avon. Or perhaps you’ve said or have heard someone say: “All that glitters isn’t gold,” “Break the ice,” “It’s Greek to me,” “Wild-goose chase,” or “Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” Sound familiar? It’s from Shakespeare. He is the Albert Einstein of literature. The Marie Curie of language. The Elon Musk of prose and poetry.
And the amazing thing about his some 37 plays is that they deal with the human condition, emotions, and experiences that are just as relevant today as they were in 1592. His plays wax poetic on universal themes of love, friendship, jealousy, ambition, pride, humility, and yes, even feminism. He writes in prose, albeit heightened text, but mostly his characters – particularly when they are overcome with emotions – speak in Iambic Pentameter, the poetic metric spoken in rhythm that is supposed to be the most replicative of a heartbeat.
He does it in such a way that when the play begins, the heartbeat starts, and as the last line is spoken, the heartbeat stops, and thus ends the play. In each line of text, he fits the most important word to sit on the stressed beat of the line so that the actors know exactly how he wants them to deliver his lines and what he is trying to say. And there are layers upon layers of double meanings, triple meanings, and even quadruple meanings behind his words. It’s this genius, the crafting of language mixed with the honesty of our human existence, that has made Shakespeare into one of the most well-known, respected, admired, and studied playwrights to have ever lived.
But putting up a Shakespeare production is not for the faint of heart. Theater artists across the globe, from A-list thespians to actors still in training, covet roles in his plays, yet it is a distinctly difficult undertaking to stage a production of one of his works. “While Shakespeare is a popular figure in Dubai, I have only seen about 10 of his plays performed here by local theater groups over the last 18 years. Most of them were Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet,” says Gautam Goenka, co-founder of The Junction, the only theater located in Alserkal Avenue, the heart of the arts community of Dubai. “So when Lydia [Medeiros] wanted to direct a musical version of a Shakespeare play, we jumped right onboard.”
And thus a brave new undertaking for the theater community in Dubai was born. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. And there is a very good reason for that. It’s witty, magical, fun, and possibly one of his funniest works. It focuses on young lovers who run to the woods in search of freedom and love, a merry band of actors who seek a place to rehearse their play, and the magical fairies who live in the woods and wreak havoc on their hearts, minds, and dreams. But even the fairies cannot escape the power of fantasy and dream in this tale of love.
The vision for this production originated with the winners of 2020’s Short and Sweet Festival. Mario Silva, Satya Baskaran, and Lydia Medeiros, all relatively new to the Dubai theater scene as both Silva and Baskaran were back from abroad and Medeiros had just moved to the city, met at an audition, instantly bonded over their shared passion for theater, began working together on a play by Victoria Z. Daly called On The Cross-Bronx, and ended up winning the festival with Best Play, Best Actress (Medeiros), along with a nomination for Silva for Best Actor.
Thus they formed the Cross Bronx Crew: the name of their little theater company trying to make their mark in Dubai. Their aim: To bring local actors into performances with meaningful and masterful scripts, and to do it like it’s never been done before. Which is exactly what they’re doing with their inaugural performance as the Cross Bronx Crew in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In the original script, Shakespeare actually wrote in multiple songs. The fairies would sing, dance, and scamper about the woods even in 1600. But what this production has done is removed Shakespeare’s musical text, and inserted popular well-known songs as well as powerful, moving, and evocative choreography by Ellie Stott and Andrea Jacinto. The music and dance are woven into the fabric of the text and at some points, it feels so seamless, you wonder if Shakespeare might have used Billie Eilish’s music and lyrics instead of his own had he been born in the 21st century. And with the addition of our favorite tunes to hum along to throughout the show, the production has breathed a breath of fresh life into a play that has been performed more than any other Shakespearean play.
It’s not just the music and the dancing, however, that makes this production so incredibly unique and special. It’s the band of actors themselves who have come from every corner of Dubai (and every continent on earth, save Antarctica) to put together this production. With a diverse cast and crew of 20+ people, the young (and the not-so-young) toil hand in hand. East meets West, North meets South, and the professional, the amateur, teenager, and child are united in one common bond: a relentless passion to put up a great work of theater.
“The teenagers in this show are the heart of why I love theater so much. They have given just as much time as every adult in this show, just as much creativity, and play, and practice, and work, and grit. They make their own costumes, dance, and learn to play and sing difficult songs, right along with the rest of us. And sometimes even better. They’re the next generation of artists. And we get to be a part of watching them blossom,” says Medeiros, who is helming the show as director and whose day job is Culture Editor at Savoir Flair.
“Becoming a part of the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the theatrical society in Dubai has been one of the highlights of my acting career,” says Shyal Bhalla, the 17-year-old playing the iconic role of ‘Puck.’ “I’ve never met such charismatic and talented people, who I can work so well with, while inspiring the best within myself. The group has brought together professionalism and playfulness, to produce an artistically insightful performance and an amazing community to work within. I have learned so much from my experience and can’t wait to perform.”
That doesn’t mean that it is without its own set of challenges unique to anyone who wants to pursue theater in Dubai in the middle of a global pandemic. “There’s no dedicated space in Dubai for rehearsals that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and artists that want to work… well, we just make it happen. We’re not getting paid to do it. We do it because we love it. We meet wherever we can find free space: The Yard in Alserkal, Warehouse 83, even on the street. And we work and work and work well into the hours of the morning. Our ‘Lysander’ is single-handedly building our set in my backyard with his wife, who also happens to be one of our fairies. Our Stage Manager designed and created the costumes, props, and makeup, our ‘Starveling’ is handling all the admin spreadsheet stuff that I have no room in my brain for, our ‘Bottom’ is assistant directing; everyone is doing whatever needs to be done to make it happen. We are no longer just actors trying to work. We are a family. Our cast is our crew, our producers, our designers, our labor of love,” continues Medeiros.
Of course none of it would be possible without the support of The Junction theater, where the play will ultimately be staged this weekend and next, as well as H72 Productions, which green-lit the show, took it under their banner, and generously provided the funding to bring the story to life. A huge debt of gratitude goes to the people of The Junction who – even in the middle of a pandemic – are trying to support the local arts scene and keep it from dwindling to an ember rather than the fire that it has become.
“I feel like the local theater has really grown from performing and staging 10-minute plays to well-known, full-length productions. It’s great to see the theater encouraging new talent and pushing the envelope further each time with the kind of plays being performed. It’s surreal to be a part of and actually see a full-length Shakespeare play being performed by the local theater,” says Siddhant Singla, who plays the part of the lover ‘Demetrius.’
And it is growing. But whether we continue to see growth in the local theater arts scene will be dependent upon the demand from the local audience. If the audience wants live theater, then one thing is certain. The show will go on. Quite literally, in this case, as it is performing this weekend, December 11th and 12th, as well as next weekend on the 17th, 18th, and 19th at 7:30 pm. There will also be matinees on Saturdays – the 12th and 19th – at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available at bookmyshow.com. It’s a family-friendly play and truly Shakespeare like you’ve never seen before. Definitely not one you want to miss. See you at the show.