Indian Summer

Australian director BAZ LUHRMANN follows the innocent love of Strictly Ballroom with the darker desires of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alan Morrison hears the Bottom line.

he course of true love never did run smooth,’ complains Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but the love affair between Edinburgh and Australian director Baz Luhrmann suffers no such obstacles. Two years ago, Luhrmann’s movie debut, Strictly Ballroom. provided a sparkling opening gala for the Edinburgh Film Festival; this year, he’s back in town for the International Festival, with an adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that transfers the opera’s action to the exotic locale of India under the Raj.

‘I worry a bit because I know that a lot of pe0ple would have bought tickets thinking, “Oh. yes. it’ll be Strictly Ballroom goes to lndia”,’ Luhrmann says, havingjust spent another day putting ¢ his cast through some final ; rehearsals for the revival of a production that has already taken Sydney and Melbourne by storm. ‘And possibly there is, if we’re true 5. to our work, a taste that comes through. But I don’t think this is an opera that I would introduce someone to if it was the first they were going to see. If, with this production, we open a door to

beautifully costumed, but in a way that is more ethnically vibrant than kitsch. Centre-stage is an ornamental bandstand which houses the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (led by the production’s Scottish conductor, Roderick Brydon) and acts as a vantage point for the fairy world to keep an eye on the lake and jungle landscape. Merchant- lvory-like colonials are visually distanced in their chiffon and khaki from the loosely bloomered lndian entertainers and bejewelled gods of legend.

Shakespeare’s original text portrayed a social split between Athenian gentry, the working- class ‘mechanicals’ and the fairies, whose supernatural world holds the same jealousies

really good metaphor for a lovers’ world that was heavy in repressed mores and a spiritual world that was rich and scary and dark, but beautiful and fun and free as well.’

The production also makes the most of the ribald sexuality that the Elizabethans enjoyed in the original, but which was toned down to non- existence by the Victorians. ‘Let’s be honest here,’ Luhrmann insists. ‘This is really a fecundity piece, and it’s about sexuality and people pulling their pants down and bestiality and Oberon wanting to possess a child. To me, if you’re playing with its notions of sexual freedom, on the one hand, Tytania having sex with a donkey is funny and, on the other, it’s straightforward bestiality. It should . f be disturbing and a joke at the same ' time. It’s no secret that Britten had this absolute passion for young boys ~ and that he was in a gay relationship at a time when the world wasn’t liberated in terms of gay sexuality. But if he wanted to hide it, he’d be doing pieces about how the hills are alive with the sound of music. It was an important part of his life, and he v investigated it, explored it and attempted to deal with his feelings in his work; and that seems to me to

Benjamin Britten for two dozen people who would go through life not experiencing him or his art or his music, then to me that’s a really worthwhile achievement. One of the things I’m really against is making

‘What India provided tor us was a really good metaphor for a lovers’ world that was heavy in repressed mores and a spiritual world that was rich and scary and dark,

but beautiful and tun and tree as well.’

be the mark of an artist.’

The amiable Australian seems blessed with a Midas touch, and is in the enviable position - having proved his worth in cinema, theatre and opera of being able to choose

opera more elitist. more distant.

more obscure; to say that. if you don’t like opera. it’s because you’re a moron. To me, what this is all about is telling stories through music.’

Luhrmann is not the only common link between 1992’s celluloid celebration of sequins and samba and the opera’s multi-layered explorations of sexual and romantic longings. Designers Catherine Martin and Bill Marron also worked on both projects. and have collabo- rated with Luhrmann on virtually all of his theatre pieces. video promos and opera produc- tions since graduating from drama school in the late 805. They practise what could almost be called ‘method research’, travelling, for Australian Opera’s La Boheme, to Puccini’s Italy. then on to Paris to live out the plot as starving artists in a garret. For their latest production, they sampled the atmosphere of Britten’s home in Aldeburgh before immersing themselves in the mysticism of India.

‘1 haven’t tried to give the opera an Elizabethan flavour. It’s no more Elizabethan than Shakespeare’s play was Athenian,’ said Britten at the time of composition, and Luhrmann’s version is removed a step further. It is not, however, despite the design bias of the collaborative trio, a production that relies solely on its look. Granted, it is richly coloured and

and desires as that of the humans. Britten underlined this by using the unusual casting of a counter-tenor for Oberon, a troupe of boy singers to emphasise their ethereal qualities, and by giving the rustics’ music a measure of bawdy innocence that makes them the bridge between the two worlds. Luhrmann’s setting ofthe events in India elaborates upon these central ideas and enriches the dominant themes.

‘We were working with a Professor of Religions at Sydney University,’ explains Luhrmann, ‘and he said that a lot of Celtic and Hindu myths come from the same story root. The key turning point for us was that he very easily translated a character like Krishna, an amoral but innocent spirit who goes around stirring up the human world, into Puck; and Shiva and Oberon can be similarly translated. Now, we’re not taking the Hindu religion and implanting it in A Midsummer Night's Dream but, by referencing the images, we were able to give ourselves a spirit world that was still potent and had a power of mysticism for modern audiences. In the same way that Miss Quested [in E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India] goes running into the Marabar Caves, sees these naked statues and suddenly has this powerful experience, what lndia provided for us was a

from several mediums clamouring for his attention. A film project looks to be next on the cards, courtesy of a financing deal he has with 20th Century Fox, and a new music theatre/opera engagement will not be far behind. Despite the massive international success of Strictly Ballroom, he has resisted the pull of Hollywood, concentrating instead on work that is closer to heart and home. But he also refuses to consider himself an ‘Australian director’, even though the tag currently holds a commer- cial and critical validity as the country continues to produce some of the most interesting, unconventional items in the international market.

‘There are stories I know i will tell that will be exclusively Australian because the story has to be told in this country,’ he insists. ‘But take The Piano, which stars an American, is directed by a New Zealander, and is financed out of Australia and France: in terms of storytelling, we live in an international community. The important thing is that you tell the story in a magnificent way, and I think that is the criterion upon which I make all my decisions.‘ C]

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Festival), Australian Opera, Festival Theatre, Thurs 25—Sat 27 Aug, 7.15pm, £8-£44.

The List 26 August—8 September I994 9