One of the most interesting things about the Wonder Season‘s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the change of Helena to Helenus. Considering Emma Rice’s determination to bring 50:50 gender casting into play, giving a traditionally big female role to a man seems completely at odds with this idea. This is made up for by way of a female Puck and most of the mechanicals being women, however. So once you strip this factor away you are free to delve deeper into the effect Helenus has on the production.
Firstly, I’ve often found Helena to be quite whiney. Unless you get the right actress in the role (Katherine Kingsley comes to mind) she can start to become a bit annoying. She may be dealing with rejection & unrequited love, but if you feel that’s all there is to her you don’t really care as much if it works out how she wants it to in the end. I’m not necessarily saying that a man will always be better – Rice has definitely struck gold with the casting of Ankur Bahl. Equal parts sassy & sympathetic, it’s impossible not to be rooting for him from the off. His pain is real, and very human.
You also have to consider the effect this has on the other characters, chiefly Demetrius. He will usually come across as a bit of a cad for throwing Helena over, and is possibly the least interesting of all the play’s characters. However, when you think about his reasons for denying Helenus in this production, it takes on a whole new complexion. Coming out is a big thing, especially if you’re feeling the weight of expectation on your shoulders – it can be easier to simply carry on with what your family & figures of authority are prescribing for you. I should also credit Ncuti Gatwa here for his performance opposite Bahl. He is strong and, at times, physically aggressive, but every so often almost lets his guard down and shows his anger to be a mask. It is always questionable that he doesn’t have the antidote applied to his eyes as Lysander does, but in this production it suggests that love-in-idleness may actually have give him the courage to be true to himself – even if he was helped along the way.
It is famously believed that Shakespeare himself may have been gay, or at least had the odd relationship with men. To me now, having seen this Helenus production a number of times, it almost feels as if the part may have been written for a man – and not just the boy actor who would perform the female role. Something in Demetrius’ words as he confesses his new-found love to Theseus, especially the following passage, rings more true in the current production.
“And all the faith, the virtue of my heart,The object and the pleasure of mine eye,Is only Helenus. To him, my lord,Was I betrothed ere I saw Hermia.But like in sickness did I loathe this food.But as in health, come to my natural taste,Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,And will for evermore be true to it.”
This is obviously speculation based on how the production makes me feel, rather than brought to light by proper evidence – but wouldn’t it be wonderful if this is what Shakespeare wanted all along?
Dr Kate Graham mentioned at the study day how much more interesting the lovers are in this production, compared to other versions she’s seen before – and pointed out the pure joy that erupts in the theatre when Helenus finally gets his man. The rest of the study session allowed us to look at specific passages of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and see how gender (cultural rules that govern behaviour) & sexuality (a person’s desire & how they are orientated) are expressed. There is a theme of patriarchy & male dominance running through the play; female agency is denied. Any time a woman tries to assert herself (for example, Titania against Oberon) the man regains power, and if they go against the cultural norm it’s in a submissive way.
This was probably my favourite session of the entire study day, thanks to Kate’s engaging presentation style and the interesting patterns that come up if you do some close reading of the text. If you ever have the inclination, do look at some of Helena’s speeches to Hermia in comparison with Lysander’s to her. It’s fascinating to speculate on what Shakespeare’s intentions may have been when he wrote the play.
It has been strange to go back to seeing a Helena after watching Rice’s show. To me that shows the wonder of her vision, the cast’s performances & the Bard’s immortal words. Yet another reason for this year’s moniker: it truly is the Wonder Season.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be live streamed during its final performance this Sunday (11 September) at 6.30pm.