I’m afraid Shakespeare in Love got it wrong on several counts – one of which is demonstrated here by The Show Must Go Online swiftly following up Romeo & Juliet with the perennially popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On paper a straightforward leap from tragedy to comedy, but I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that…
It’s a good thing I keep track of the Shakespeare productions that I see, as I’d have probably lost count of the number of Dreams I’ve watched. Last year ended up being the Summer of Dreams in London, with several productions featuring in #MindTheBard week and yet more falling by the wayside. I have fond memories of a jazzy adaptation entitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Orleans, and CtrlAlt_Repeat put together their own Zoom version a few weeks ago for The Stay Inn. Though the Bridge Theatre version came very close, Emma Rice’s production will probably always be The One. And we just won’t talk about the Young Vic in 2017.
Academic Grace Ioppolo was on hand to introduce the play, bringing forth a fascinating performance history of this “Shakespearean pastoral”. As many productions tend to focus on the fantastical elements and getting close to nature, it was good to hear more about the landmark 1970 production by Peter Brook that went down the darker side of the play; it was a stripped back piece, with a white box for a set, a trapeze, and a nightmarish vision. Dream was popular in its own time, as evidenced by the existence of two different printed versions, and was a “great representation of his [Shakespeare’s] artistic vision”. It was likely first performed at either The Theatre or The Curtain, later revived at The Globe and Blackfriars Theatre. The play was “especially celebrated for its comic genius” – no matter how dark the production goes, this is something you should always be able to rely on. (Shut up, #YVDream!)
As many of you will be familiar with this play already, here I present a stripped back synopsis in homage to Peter Brook’s RSC production in its 50th anniversary year…
Theseus ‘won’ Hippolyta in battle and plans to marry her. Hermia must marry Demetrius, become a nun, or die for disobedience to her father – she loves Lysander, and Helena loves Demetrius. A group of craftsmen (Mechanicals) form their own am dram society. Lovers & Mechanicals all head Into the Woods. Oberon & Titania (King & Queen of the Fairies) argue over a changeling boy; nature suffers. Love-in-Idleness messes with true love, opens someone’s eyes, and acts as a revenge. Puck orchestrates & revels in the chaos: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
The game this week was to spot the prop mixups. I’ll be honest – I was having way too much fun to keep tabs on that! Instead, I’d chosen to take my own approach. As I’ve seen the play so many times but not studied it that much, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to basics and be a little more analytical about it – so I bought myself a copy of (friend of TSMGO) Ben Crystal’s Dream Springboard Shakespeare and worked through it as suggested. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s split into ‘Before’, ‘During’, and ‘After’ sections, designed for engaging with whilst reading or watching the play in question; the first one I owned was for King Lear, which I bought the morning before I saw the NT version with Simon Russell Beale, and it proved invaluable (Hamlet & Macbeth are the other titles currently available, FYI). ‘Before’ combined very well with the introduction, overlapping with some performance history as well as expanding on other ideas – I’d never realised before that it only has nine scenes (it can be hard to tell when you’re just watching), and it’s always helpful to go into the verse & rhythms in more depth.
It was tough to fit in the five “interval whispers” in such a short changeover – these highlighted “Hermia’s Plight”, “Oberon, Titania and the Changeling Boy”, “Love’s Eyes”, “The Flower”, and “Philostrate, the Master of the Revels”. So, two key plot points, an intriguing text insight, and important device, and an overlooked character. This section is arguably the most useful for first-time Dreamers, as it consolidates what you’ve already seen, makes you think back & notice the language a bit more, and helps you not to ignore a more minor character who still has an important role to play.
The ‘After’ section is great for analysing what you’ve just seen (or read) in an accessible way. I liked the fact that Crystal emphasises the importance of darkness to make the light in comedies really shine out, and TSMGO definitely achieved that; though I was laughing a lot, this was mostly in the Mechanicals’ sections – the darkness came via the fairies’ world, highlighting the consequences in meddling with other people’s affairs. The play within a play (Pyramus & Thisbe) is also worth a mention, as Crystal points out that it’s only returned to in two future plays in the canon (Hamlet & The Tempest); it’s the same basic story as Shakespeare’s previous play, Romeo & Juliet, with its parted lovers and bad timing leading to their successive suicides – but with the Mechanicals in charge it becomes farcical thanks to their lack of both resources and acting talent, no matter what Bottom believes of himself.
It really did end up being “madness, mischief & mayhem”, thanks to a truly outstanding cast. Director Rob Myles had previously mentioned that he was hoping to perform in one of the future productions, and it was a joy to see him explode onto the screen as Bottom – the energy & comic wildness he displayed suited the role down to the ground, and made a potentially irritating character wholly lovable. Between him and Mark McMinn as snack-chugging Snout (the jelly was good, but the pickled onions had me in stitches!) I was laughing almost non-stop at the Mechanicals’ scenes.
Helena can also be a slightly annoying presence as it can be all too easy to go down the whiney route when she pines for Demetrius, but thanks to Hannah Ellis it felt like she had a bit more gumption – and her willingness to put herself at risk by following the object of her affection into the forest shows more bravery than desperation. Andrew Mockler & Natalie Boakye brought a definite sense of dark magic to the King & Queen of the Fairies, and Katrina Allen’s Puck was just the right balance of mischievous & malevolent.
In a week where racism overtook coronavirus to be the main topic of conversation and anger, it was heartening to see TSMGO use their platform to talk about the issues raised and share some helpful links (these can be found in the YouTube video description). Company member Amelia Parillon spoke honestly & eloquently before the play was introduced and performed, and I would urge you to watch this short section before focusing on Dream, if you haven’t seen it as yet.
Next week: King John
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was broadcast on 3 June 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.