Elizabeth Ramos

Federal University of Bahia, Brazil

artigo apresentado no 5o congresso do IATIS (international association for translation and interpretation)

pucks e shakespeare - foto: joão meirelles

“Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee. Thou art translated”, says Peter Quince in Midsummer night’s dream, Act 3, Scene 1, when he sees the head of an ass fixed by Puck on Bottom’s head. It is then, with the understanding that staged performances are translations of written texts, and therefore transformations, that I shall approach this prize-winning adaption of Shakespeare’s comedy Midsummer night’s dream staged by the Brazilian group Olodum Theatre Band, in 2006, under the direction of Márcio Meirelles, a well-known name in the Brazilian theatrical scene, who at the age of 7 drew a stage, on a piece of paper, for a performance of Midsummer night’s dream, which he had just read.

In 1992, Werner Herzog came to Rio to stage the play, and Meirelles was invited to co-direct his childhood dream. Fourteen years later, in 2006, he decided to stage his dream play. The performance took place in his hometown, Salvador, a Brazilian city where people of African ancestry amount to 80% of the population, but where the number of African Brazilian actors and actresses did not meet an equivalent percentage then. In his mind nothing would be better at that time than staging the Shakespearean comedy that addresses love more frequently than any other drama written by William Shakespeare with a group of African Brazilian actors and actresses who became a reference in the fight against discrimination and racism in Brazilian dramaturgy, breaking local hegemonic views of stage performances. The Band – a name that goes back to groups of run away slaves in early 19th century – draws  from African cultural references observed in the marginalized social layers of Bahian society addressing Carnival, the religious rituals of Candomblé, segregation, social conflict.

The play emerges from a joyful and entertaining stage atmosphere with actors and actresses who grew up far from the privileged spheres of society, and began their career with no experience in acting. Some of them ended up learning drama performance formally, others, by acting, thus echoing certain types of local audiences who think like Philostrate, the character in Midsummer night’s dream: “Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never labored in their minds till now,/And now have toiled their unbreathed memories.” (5.1)

The Band is then a multifaceted group of people who act, dance, and play several musical instruments, in order to bring Shakespeare back to a popular stage, after nine months of training, preparation and studying.

Our Brazilian imaginary associates a midsummer night to Carnival, our most popular summer celebration with its four days of masquerade, sexual freedom, mixing of people’s identities regardless their social economic background. The occasion therefore perfectly suits Hippolyta’s lines in Act I, Scene 1: “Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;/ Four nights will quickly dream away the time;/ And then the moon, like a silver bow / New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”

Meirelles’s Midsummer night’s dream becomes then “a space of multiple dimensions, where a variety of writings spouse and contest each other, being none of them original: the text is a weaving of citations that come from thousands of cultural views.” (BARTHES, 1988, p. 62) The play is set on an African-Brazilian stage, at Carnival time, privileging Bahian cultural references in an adaptation that maintains the structure of the source text built mainly on the theme of love.

The performance incorporates signs of the African Brazilian religion – Candomblé –which, like the English renaissance mysticism, is also built on elements from Nature, magical potions, mythical beings. The play takes advantage of those signs, and is staged within an atmosphere of a great deal of music, dance, and percussion expressed in different genres and styles. Meirelles associates characters and situations to different African Brazilian beats, inviting us then to expand our Western perspective in order to observe the mix of music with other stage systems. The audience comes across Shakespearean characters moving to the sound of the Ijexá, a soft Nigerian beat, in which the drums are played with the hands to mark the rhythm; samba-reggae, a Brazilian musical genre created around the mid-80s and the early years of the 21st. century, resulting from the mixture of samba, reggae and funk music presented with different types of drums and guitars, as well as other instruments from Latin American rhythms with a strong influence of merengue and salsa; to the gallop, a sprightly type of music and dance very much appreciated in the streets during Carnival days in Salvador; and rap music, played in scenes of transgression, given its marginal twist. African rhythms and percussion, therefore permeate this spicy version of Midsummer Night’s Dream without losing its bond with the Shakespearean text.

titânia e o "jumento" Bottom - foto: joão milet meirelles

In Act V, Scene 1, Theseus’s asks – “Say, what abridgement have you for this evening? What masques, what music? How shall we beguile the lazy time if not with some delight?” In an attempt to answer this question, the Band brings to the audience the matches and mismatches between two young African-Athenian lovers, who find adventure in the woods controlled and manipulated by fairies, on the eve of the wedding of the black skinned couple Theseus and Hippolyta, when the artisans Bottom and Flute, along with Peter Quince, Starveling, Snout and Snug will perform ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’.

Powerful body movements agitate light and colourful pieces of cloth, which dangle and stir on stage under light effects, giving the audience the impression of characters floating in the air, as if in a dream. Golden ornaments decorate characters’ heads, beads, glass pearls adorn necks and breasts, and powerful arms and legs facilitate the vigorous movements of the forest fairies. For, in black African performances, music, acting and dancing movements cannot be dissociated from one another. Music implies movement.

Shifted to Bahia, the Shakespearean comedy will reveal a place whose culture is stereotypically built upon three pillars: familiarity (an ambivalent concept in an unequal society), sensuality (associated to naturalization of roles and attitudes), and religiousness (usually revealed as mystification in a traditional society) (MOURA, 2001). Bahia is then stereotypically perceived as populated by friendly and cheerful people, who are virile and feminine, all ingredients, which together identify a culture based on sensuality and religiousness. The insertion of body movements is therefore essential to this performance, which brings vigorous limb and hip movements, bodies standing and facing one another while sensually contorting, particularly in the universe of the lovers and the fairies. 
The pillar of familiarity is clearly demonstrated by the group of artisans for whom formality seems to be an unknown concept. As for religiousness, the use of long African drums, and the artists sitting to the right and the left, beyond the stage limits, when they are not performing or playing musical instruments, allude to the settings in rituals of Candomblé.

This version of Midsummer Night’s Dream is then staged under a set of interlinked colourful ribbons that end up building a cover for a far from refined pub where actors and actresses open the performance dancing un-orderly to the sound of a loud Carnival like rhythm, under the protective eyes of a picture of William Shakespeare.

abertura - foto: joão milet meirelles

We come across a scene of celebration, which brings to the beginning the happy ending of the play. Here, in this opening scene, the two temporalities of the comedy – humans, and gods and fairies – mingle. Transformation, as relates to the source text, is there thus from the very start expressed in the costumes, loud music, stage setting, and body movements, as if announcing a play in which identities are mixed, and the end will be a happy one.

The more the comedy moves further from irony, and rejoices in its free movement of a happy society, the more it takes refuge in music and dance. As music and scenery acquire more importance, the ideal comedy crosses the border of the spectacular drama, and turns into a mask. (FRYE, 214, p.447)

The music slowly comes to a stop, and actors and actresses leave the stage, clearing it of all light items of furniture. One actor – the one we later learn to be Bottom – lies down on the stage floor as if sleeping, and is awaken by a group of somersaulting actors – in fact, three Pucks – that step in. Bottom gets up and comes out of stage following the three young men. The scene somehow anticipates Robin’s words in Act 5, Scene 1: “And this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream.”

Although space and décor are the same, the emptiness of the stage expresses a change in environment. In a clear movement of double bind with the source text, here the first temporality of Midsummer night’s dream, that of human creatures, is immediately established. The audience’s eyes see a valiant Hippolyta on stage, and a vigorous Theseus – standing with his dreadlocks in the audience – both reciting their joy in anticipation of their wedding. Body movements are not stressed, and colours are limited to black and a little bit of white, except for Hippolyta who is richly and sensually dressed in black and red.

Hermia’s father, Egeus, comes in dressed in a black tunic, introducing his daughter, Demetrius and Lysander. On a dark stage, where body movements are kept to a minimum, we anticipate the graveness of the scene. Theseus is still off stage, standing in the audience, now in the company of Hippolyta, announcing Hermia’s punishment if she insists in going against her father’s wish to see her married to Demetrius.

The shifting from the temporality of the human creatures to that of the gods and fairies, in the “green world”, is expressed in this African-Brazilian Midsummer night’s dream mostly by means of vigorous and sensual body movements, to the sound of a diversity of rhythms, body ornaments, and colours particularly red and yellow for Titania and her four powerful fairies, who dress alike, and have black African ornaments around their necks and on their heads.

titânia e oberon - foto: joão milet meirelles

Oberon is also a powerful character on stage, with his face ethnically made up, his golden helmet on his head, and his black African dark tunic that exposes his strong arms.

Two actors who are replications of him, and who move as if they were his shadow follow Oberon throughout the performance, designing a triple character. A possible source for this triple entity might be Hecate, a goddess in Greek religion and mythology, associated with the moon, magic, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants among other features.[1]

In this new universe, the audience is also surprised to see three Pucks on stage – played by three young men, who look alike, and move together throughout the play – as if echoing Oberon’s lines in Act 5, Scene 1 – “And the issue there create / Ever shall be fortunate. So shall all the couples three / Ever true in loving be.” Therefore, three Pucks for three couples affected by the magic drops, and one Puck for each Oberon.

As for the two couples – Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius – their dark clothes from the beginning of the play, now give room to very light, loose, white tunics, reinforcing lightness in the green world.

Back to the human temporality, we now see Theseus and Hippolyta dressed in white, as if ready to get married, standing in the audience. The same applies to the two young lovers who stand at each side of the stage.

The story is thus framed.

Bottom and Flute, along with Peter Quince, Starveling, Snout and Snug, who acquire clever local names related to their practices of a Weaver, a Bellow’s mender, a Carpenter, a Tailor, a Tinker and a Joiner come to stage to perform ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. The artisans free from their working outfits are covered now with very colorful ribbons, and other trimmings. Back to popular tradition, Starveling, as Moonlight, carries a play dragon in his arms and a wooden sword. After all, tradition holds that Saint George dwells in the moon, where he kills the beast.

When Theseus invites everyone to the masks by the end of the artisans’ performance, all of them dance together to the sound of the same song that started the play. The creatures from the green world follow them, joined by Bottom, and the rest of the cast. The ribbons that were covering the stage come down to embrace the actors and actresses.

abertura de "piramo e tisbe" - foto: joão milet meirelles

The play is over.

Through such a dual process of appropriation and recuperation, of interpreting and creating something new, Meirelles shows himself to be a contemporary dramatist, if we understand ‘contemporaneity as a singular relationship with present time, to which one adheres, and from which one simultaneously withdraws.’ (AGAMBEN, 2013, p. 59)

He puts together a play that clearly shows that culture is something collectively built, and is to be enjoyed by everyone. New technologies have generated a wealth of new popular cultural expressions, which reflect and represent communities that have historically been silenced by the so-called cult centers. Nowadays, quite often we come across products and behaviors the dominant classes of society adapt from the less privileged ones excluded from the power zones – rap music being a good example of that.

These are the thoughts that govern the mind of Márcio Meirelles, the director who wanted to stage a play based on love, and who allowed the contemporary text to affect the source text for love, and vice-versa, in an amorous conjunction.

Such is the process of translation.


Bionote of convenor: Elizabeth Ramos has a Post-Doctorate degree from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), and a Master’s and Doctorate in Literary and Linguistic Studies from the Universidade Federal da Bahia, where she is Professor in the Department of Germanic Letters. She conducts research in the field of Shakespearean and Translation Studies (both literary and intersemiotic), mainly concerned with the relationships between literature and cinema. In those fields, she advises Master’s and Doctoral students.



AGAMBEN, Giorgio. O que é o contemporâneo. Translated by Vinicius Nicastro Honesko.  Chapecó: Argos, 2013.

BARTHES, Roland. Da obra ao texto. IN: O rumor da língua. Trad. Mário Laranjeira. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2012.

 de Doutorado


FRYE, Northrop. Anatomia da crítica: quatro ensaios. Translated by Marcus de Martini. São Paulo: É Realizações Editora, 2014.



[1] As per Márcio Meirelles text in the play programme.

Publicado em 04/10/2015 | nenhum comentário

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