Karl Falconer is an award-winning theatre and film director based in England. His work with Shakespeare and classical drama has been staged across the UK and Ireland, and he has produced work in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre amongst others. His work has received support and praise from key industry figures including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh and more. He has produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream four times, in 2010/12/13 and 15.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is no such case to argue for why this play should be performed as there was with Titus Andronicus, which we discussed last week; for it remains one of Shakespeare’s most well-loved and regularly performed pieces of work. Audiences all over the world continue to be beguiled and enchanted by this beautiful play, one of Shakespeare’s shortest, with its dizzying mix of humour, romance and magic. There are certainly any number of ways to interpret the ranging elements of this play: despite its relative shortness, it is a veritable mine of creative possibility, making it so endlessly enduring for directors, actors and audiences alike.
But what is it about this particular story, of fairies and magic and confusion, that has drawn on the attention of so many theatre-makers and theatre-goers? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is believed (as always, we can’t be certain) to have been written around 1595/6. This places it as one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, during his period of intense focus on lyrical work. Some critics attempt an exact placement as somewhere between the completion of Romeo and Juliet and the start of The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare would go on to write many more comedies over the course of his career, some much more complex than this. But there is something about the elegant simplicity of Midsummer, despite its complicated Lover’s plot, that affords it such a special place in people’s hearts.
Throughout history, it has been the element of Magic that has propelled this play into the stratosphere. Although early commentators raged over the moral implications of depicting the ‘Unknown’ on stage, especially dreaded Magic, it was the element of trickery that fired the imaginations of actors throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, resulting in vast operas and grand spectacles, which endure to this day. Midsummer, more than any other play by Shakespeare, became an opportunity for pomp and circumstance. These spectacles were a sure-fire method to fill the vast opera houses and music halls that were popping up throughout Britain, and they were not entirely without merit. Although one could criticise these adaptations for putting style above substance, there certainly is a thrill to being able to physically see the power of the Fairy King and Queen right before your eyes. This would not have been possible during Shakespeare’s own lifetime, indeed, the Chorus in Henry V tells us to ‘Work, work [our] thoughts’ to imagine before us what the stage cannot itself present (Henry V, 3.1, 25). But similarly, Elizabethan jigs – great celebrations at the end of performances, which were demanded by the public and quite out of the playwright’s own hands – were immense displays of bawdy celebration, and much later in his career, Shakespeare would continue to push the boundaries of theatrical innovation when he began writing plays for indoor performances at Blackfriars (Incidentally, we can be fairly sure that Shakespeare and his contemporaries hated these Jigs, which were not written by the playwrights themselves but conducted over by the company Clown, regardless of the play’s genre). The Tempest, for example, makes many technical demands, and there is no such evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was against such theatrical spectacle. It was, infact, the mistake of an over ambitious pyrotechnic that burnt down the original Globe during a performance of Henry VIII.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s, as it happens, that A Midsummer Night’s Dream took a significant step back to its own roots. Peter Brook’s much lauded seminal production for the Royal Shakespeare Company set the production in a minimalist white box, and drew on circus skills for the representation of magic (It wasn’t actually the first time the play had been stripped back in this way – much to popular belief – as Brook had infact taken his lead from a production by Harley Granville-Barker 60 years earlier). What this stylish interpretation emphasised was a return to language and the trust in Shakespeare’s words in order to create the illusion of magic and romance. Suddenly spectacle didn’t matter. It was the language that made the play work, and this attitude carved a pathway right through to the modern day, where productions are interpreted in any number of different ways, using the language as both a starting point and a driving force throughout. Indeed, in my own experience with this play, I have found productions to work much better when the language is embraced, rather than rejected.
I have, infact, tackled A Midsummer Night’s Dream four times. Firstly, in 2010, as our company’s first foray into Shakespeare. Staged in November, this production had a decidedly chilly twist. We revived this production two years later, transferring to an open-air setting as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. It became the inaugural production for our Young Actors Company, where we used contemporary India as a lose starting point for a much more physical and colourful rendering of the play. And then in 2015, running in rep with Hamlet, we took the production to Ireland where we tested how extremely we could push the comedy, setting the play within the heightened world of a Liverpool nightclub.
To me, there seems to be three elements to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that create its endless diversity for interpretation. Romance. Magic. And Humour. Indeed, I am astounded by how much this play continues to open up for me each time I look at the text again. This is a text which, understandably, I feel that I know inside out. Yet every so often I discover another layer to this deeply multifaceted production. Only recently, Michael Bogdanov’s wonderful essay on the play in, Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut, alluded to the intense sexuality deep within the play, and how Titania’s beautiful monologue berating Oberon for his fight against her, can actually be read as an allusion to rape. Men’s dominance of women is deeply hidden within the play, and reading thus,
‘The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1, 96-100)
it’s hard not to fall in love again and again with the sheer possibility of this fascinating text.
Let’s consider our first element then: Love. It is a popular conceit, infact, I’ve literally heard directors and well-known actors say, ‘everyone knows the Lover’s are boring.’ Wrong. If played correctly, the Lover’s can be some of the best bits of a successful production of this play. There has been a tradition to segregate them from the humour, placing that firmly at the door of the hapless Mechanicals. It’s also true that they lack some of the individuality seen in some of the other characters – the loss of identity is not just a comedic trick used by Shakespeare to create confusion, it is a choreographed enchantment designed to increase the effect of the play working on an audience like a dream. The huge Act 3 Scene 2, one of the longest and wordiest scenes in the play, focuses on the show-down between the four Lovers which results, whichever way you look at it, in a huge fight. I’ve seen this played as depressingly dark and mind-numbingly boring, but as soon as we unlock the physicality in the scene, it comes to life. The Lover’s Fight is a centrepiece for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the more physical we make it, the funnier it becomes. And for those who would bemoan the loss of romantic beauty in the Lovers’ language, I have found the complete opposite to be true. Throughout all of this play, when we push the comedy further, the tragedy lurking around the corner becomes all the more poignant too.
‘LYSANDER: What, should I hurt her, strike her, kill her dead?
Although I hate her, I’ll not harm her so.
HERMIA: What, can you do me greater harm than hate?
Hate me! wherefore? O me! what news, my love!
Am not I Hermia? are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me:
Why, then you left me–O, the gods forbid!–
In earnest, shall I say?
LYSANDER: Ay, by my life;
And never did desire to see thee more.
Therefore be out of hope, of question, of doubt;
Be certain, nothing truer; ’tis no jest
That I do hate thee and love Helena.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2, 271-283)
Humour is a vital game of tug-of war within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or rather a see-saw. Too much, and we risk overshadowing other elements of its rich fabric. Too little, and… well, we’ve come to see a comedy, right? In my production last year, I decided to see what would happen if we fully exaggerated the element of Humour within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Everything was over the top, no joke was spared in the aim of creating a comedy rollercoaster for an audience. We had great fun, and it helped unlock moments that before had seemed jarring or difficult. But I don’t believe we achieved this without sacrifice. Similarly, Filter Theatre’s Midsummer sees the Rude Mechanicals’ lines completely rewritten and transposed into Modern English. The gag is that Peter Quince, a standup comedian, has secured Ian McKellen as a special guest to play Bottom for the night. When McKellen gets stuck in a lift in the theatre foyer, a member of the audience must step up, and hence we get the over-ambition of Nick Bottom literally stepping into the limelight. Both of these productions shared a great joy of comedy, but when watching Filter’s production, I didn’t feel as if I had watched a Shakespeare play. The experience was great, but it wasn’t Shakespeare. Similarly with my own production, in making the play almost pantomime, we had sacrificed some of its sense of intrigue.
What is this intrigue, then? This is the most elusive element of Midsummer to get right, and takes us right back to the idea of spectacle. I wrote in my last article that A Midsummer Night’s Dream almost has the effect of feeling like a dream in performance. Puck himself alludes to this in his closing address,
‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1, 386-391)
The extensive use of verse and the rhyming language make Midsummer feel like a nursery-rhyme, and, indeed, I would attribute much of its continued endurance to its easy accessibility. This is a Shakespeare play that children can enjoy. The subject matter plays perfectly to a child’s sensibility, foolish players and magical fairies are the stuff of childhood play. Perhaps this is where the magic truly lies within Midsummer, in its childlike ability to revert to a state of consciousness somewhere in our fondest memories. The element of Magic, then, doesn’t necessarily have to come from Oberon wielding a wand. The very escapist idea of being able to flee the trappings of real life, if only for a night, to ‘let your indulgence set you free’ (The Tempest, 5.2, 20) and to emerge on the other side to a happy-ever-after, speak to us subconsciously and let us suspend our disbelief with this play unlike any other.
Next week in this series we will be considering Twelfth Night in performance.
- Bogdanov, Michael. Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut, Capercaillie Books Limited; 2nd Revised Edition, 2013.
- Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nick Hern, 1993.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World, How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Random House, London, 2004.
- Shapiro, James. 1599. A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 2005.
Recommended sources of further Information on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: