A Mid-Summer Nightmare

Translating Shakespeare to a contemporary audience is always a heady challenge, but perhaps never more daunting than what visiting American scholar Lorelle Browning and Hanoi-based dramatist Doan Hoang Giang faced when the two collaborated in creating a bilingual (Vietnamese and English) Mid-Summer Night's Dream set in Hanoi in 2000.

Thomas Weidlinger's documentary A Dream in Hanoi depicts, scars and all, the cultural—and political—battles inherent in any cross-national collaboration. Backstage squabbles involving costume design pale in comparison to artistic differences over script length, stage performance and actor dialog. The film frequently intersperses scenes from Shakespeare's comedy, with one particular scene highlighting the cultural differences at play. Should handsome lead actor Doug Miller, playing Lysander, kiss his beautiful lover Hermia (Ngan Hoa) on the lips, thus breaking a local taboo? In the end, in rehearsals at least, they engage in sustained kissing—to the laughter of the cast.

Language difficulties compound the challenge as Vietnamese actors speak in their native tongues and occasionally in English, while American actors try some phrases in stilted Vietnamese but mostly drone on in English.

Young production assistant Ho Quoc Hung is shown succinctly explaining the differences in work styles between his Central Dramatic Co. of Vietnam and the Artists Repertory of Portland, Oregon. For Americans, it's work, work, work. But “we seem not to have much conflict with each other,” Ho said of the Vietnamese, who, while working, like to talk to one another about their families. “So it makes the work less tense,” he says. “Work is only a part of life, not all.”

The apparatchiks in Vietnam's communist government initially raved about the production, even promising the group opening night at Hanoi's famed Opera House, the “Carnegie Hall of Vietnam.” But at the last minute, when visiting U.S. president Bill Clinton did not put the performance on his Hanoi schedule, the producers had to frantically scour the capital city for another venue. With one week to spare, they settled on the mammoth Vietnamese-Soviet Friendship Hall, whose stage alone is the size of the opera house. The Americans were also shocked to discover—days before the opening—that tickets could not be sold until the government censors had previewed the performance, which they threatened to do only on opening night.

In the end, Vietnamese co-director Doan comes across as diplomatic and skilled in the multiple negotiation sessions (recalling the performance of Vietnam peace negotiator Le Duc Tho), while co-producer Browning struts like the female dominatrix version of Le's counterpart, Henry Kissinger—arrogant and haughty. But as in 1972, the two sides eventually manage to come together. When the play opens, the house is packed in Hanoi. It's also a success days later in Ho Chi Minh City.

A Dream in Hanoi (Vietnamese and English with English subtitles) screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com; www.adreaminhanoi.com. April 6, 2 p.m. $8.

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