“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nancy Meckler, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, 2011

To begin with, I feared the worst. Theseus’ court was a grim, grey, bare place, with men playing cards and hookers lounging around. Why should Theseus hold court in a cheap brothel, I wonder? The mood projected seemed so far from the charm and enchantment I normally associate with this play that I had to check my programme to make sure it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had come to see, and not Measure for Measure.

There was one lady on stage sitting very sulkily amidst all this: she turned out to be Hippolyta, and didn’t exactly seem too happy about her forthcoming marriage to Theseus. Yes, it’s true that Theseus says “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword”, but there’s no indication in the text that Hippolyta is being forced into a marriage against her will. How could such an interpretation be consistent with the joyous celebration of marriage with which this play ends? I dreaded that this was going to be one of those readings that insist the play to be the very opposite of what it explicitly claims to be.

One can, of course, pick out lines in the text to support the depiction of Theseus’ Athens as a brutal patriarchy in which women are debased. The laws of Athens actually do decree death to a daughter who refuses to accept her father’s choice of husband. And Theseus is indeed given these disturbing lines:

What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.

However, context is important. The draconian law that Egeus insists upon is an “ancient privilege” – possibly, like the ones in Measure for Measure, a law that had fallen into disuse, but which had not yet been repealed: at any rate, it seems quite clear that Theseus is most unwilling to put this law into practice. Indeed, while Egeus insists on the death penalty, it is Theseus who reminds him of the somewhat less cruel (though still undesirable) alternative allowed by the law: instead of facing the death penalty, Hermia could take vows to become a nun. Theseus’ speech to Hermia, terrible though it is, must surely be seen not as a nasty and sadistic affirmation of patriarchal tyranny, but as a desperate plea to Hermia to save herself from the terrible consequences of not accepting her father’s will. For, unwilling though Theseus may be to put the ancient law into action, it is a law still, and for a ruler to assume the power to overrule a law is a form of tyranny: such a thing, Theseus makes clear, he can “by no means” do. Of course, he changes his mind about this later in the play: presumably he has wrestled with his conscience, and has decided that not to overrule so hideous a law would, in this instance, be an even greater tyranny. But this is not the subject of this play: Shakespeare will deal with such issues later in Measure for Measure. This is a play of another sort. It is a play of moonlit enchantment; it is a play about the transforming power of the imagination; and, finally, it is a celebration of married love. The first scene in this production does not so much as hint at any of this – especially when Hippolyta, disgusted by what she perceives as Theseus’ cruelty, spits on him. As Benedick says in another play, “this looks not like a nuptial”. By the end, of course, Theseus and Hippolyta are joyously united, but after what we had seen of them in the first scene, there is something here that doesn’t quite seem to fit.

But as we come into the forest in Act Two, we have a miraculous transformation: aided by some superbly atmospheric lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel, the play becomes every bit as enchanting and as magical as it should be. The four lovers interact superbly with each other, and the big quarrel scene of Act 3 Scene 2 reaches its climatic point with a marvellously choreographed and executed piece of knockabout stage comedy. Lucy Briggs-Owen, simultaneously funny and vulnerable as Helena, is particularly outstanding.

The moonlit forest scenes are presented here as Hippolyta’s dream, as she transforms on stage into Titania. As with many other productions, the actors playing Hippolyta and Thesus (Pippa Nixon and Jo Stone-Fewings in this production) also take on the roles of Titania and Oberon, but here, the identification between the two couples is made explicit: not only does Hippolyta transform into Titania, but, at the end of the forest scenes, as the Fairy King and Queen dance joyfully in reconciliation, they change back before our eyes into Theseus and Hippolyta. The on-stage transformation is magical, but, if I may assume the role of a dyspeptic critic for a while, it did seem a shame that some of my favourite lines were excised at this point: Hippolyta’s remembrance of the hunt in Crete with Hercules and Cadmus in which the baying hounds created “so musical a discord, such sweet thunder” is surely too good to be cut! But let’s not dwell on this: by this point, there was in the air a sense of wonder and enchantment – qualities that had seemed very distant in the opening scene.

The forest is presented as dark and sinister for the four lovers: there is one marvellous moment that conjured up the somewhat nightmarish world of the Grimms’ fairy tales, as the four young lovers progress through the darkness with sinister spirits lurking around them, tripping them up at each step. But this dream is not a nightmare: as Oberon says, “we are spirits of another sort”. Oberon and his crew are solicitous of mortals, and can feel compassion for their sorrows, and celebrate their joys: even Puck (played here with playful relish by Arsher Ali) is mischievous rather than malicious. And it is these spirits who, in a dream, heal human wounds.

As well as Theseus’ court, the woodland spirits, and the four young lovers, we have, of course, the “rude mechanicals”. Here, they are an endearing bunch. Marc Wootton a particularly fine Bottom, who takes all the dreamlike magic in his stride, quite unruffled at finding himself adored by the great Fairy Queen herself. This is a very ordinary man who has been granted a vision of something magnificent, but which is beyond his ken: although he doesn’t have the words to give expression to it, he knows that what he has experienced was “a very rare vision”. The “Pyramus and Thisbe” play in the final scene is a high-spirited, rumbustious affair, and capped off a superb evening’s theatre.

But this is not the last word, of course: at the very end, in one of the most inventive touches in this most inventive of plays, the fairies of the dream world invade the real world of Theseus’ court, and bless the newly married couples. By this stage, the very harsh (and to my mind, somewhat misjudged) setting of the first scene is, thankfully, long forgotten. Except, of course, by sour-faced reviewers like myself.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark David Dietz on August 8, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Started writing something here, but the computer knocked me off. So, in short, Shakespeare taken as a complete unity is as wrong as Shakespeare taken as nothing but bits and pieces. He is bits and pieces, I suppose, but bits and pieces that he expects the reader (listener, audience) to put together intelligently and imaginatively. Thanks for the review.

    Reply

    • I do get the impression that Shakespeare, throughout his career, experimented in balancing diversity and unity: to depict life accurately, to hold up a mirror to nature, one has to show the diversity; and yet, a work of art requires unity. How to marry the two? I don’t think Shakespeare’s experiments always worked, but even the failed experiments are fascinating. I think, for instance, that the romantic comedy in The Merchant of Venice gets overwhelmed by the tragic intensity of the strand involving Shylock, but who in their right minds would want to exchange Shylock merely for a well-constructed comedy?

      Reply

  2. Posted by MIchael Harvey on August 10, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Hugely enjoyed your review of ‘The Dream’, Himadri. I have tickets for this show, I only hope I feel well enough to go.
    Michael

    Reply

  3. Posted by MIchael Harvey on August 12, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    I think if I were asked to choose the most perfect of Shakespeare’s plays it would certainly be ‘The Dream’. All the elements work together in absolute balance. To find other plays which work so beautifully you have to go to Wilde’s ‘The Importance’ and Ibsen. Now which of Ibsen’s in the most perfect? ‘Ghosts?

    Reply

    • Perfection is a curious quality: most of the greatest works of art are grossly imperfect, and, perhaps, inevitably so: King Lear, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, War and Peace – these are all products of such insane artistic ambition that perfection isn’t even to be expected. For what do piddling little flaws matter in the face of such achievement? No – let us aim for perfection when other aims remain modest: perfection is not a quality even to be aimed for when so much more is at stake!

      But then again…

      But then again, there are works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, or any one of Mozart’s miraculous piano concertos, in which not a word, not a note could be altered without diminishing it. And in these cases, we can but stare and wonder.

      Ibsen’s case was a strange one in that when we consider those twelve prose plays from Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, the greater his artistic ambition, the deeper his vision peered, the more perfect he became. A Doll’s House, for all its greatness, seems to me a most imperfect work. But by the time we come to The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, perfection of form seemed to go hand-in-hand with depth of vision. In these plays, not a single line, not a single gesture, is wasted: every single element, every single detail, seems absolutely right. Such perfection has not been achieved on stage since … well, since Shakespeare, I guess.

      (His very last play, When We Dead Awaken, remains curiously stunted: given that he had a debilitating stroke shortly after finishing it, it seems reasonable to attribute whatever shortcoming it has to Ibsen’s failing health. It’s still a great masterpiece, though!)

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on August 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    I think that the trouble is that some of the audience will believe that Athens was a “a brutal patriarchy” , based on readings of history that are popularly presented. I’m no expert but it is usually pointed out that democracy was for male citizens who’s citizenship was based on a willingness to fight in war. In the domain of the family they had absolute power over women and slaves. In this society it is also suggested that pederasty was tolerated, with a corresponding view that any mature male taking a submissive role was considered less of a man. In short, a society based on domination and submission.
    So, whatever Shakespeare’s ‘intention’, I think you should cut the director some slack.

    Reply

    • We can only discern Shakespeare’s intentions from the text, and whatever the director presents on stage must be consistent with the text: otherwise, direction becomes an act of creation, not of interpretation.

      As is apparent from the text of the play, Shakespeare here had no interest whatever in presenting Ancient Athens as a historical reality, so the historical aspects of Ancient Athens to which you refer seem to me irrelevant here. The question is not whether the depiction of Athens may be justified from a historical viewpoint, but, rather, whether it is consistent with what Shakespeare had written. My view is that it isn’t, as the harshness presented in the first scene remains unresolved, thus allowing for no logical progression to the harmony of the ending. As a consequence, the unity of the dramatic action of Shakespeare’s play, which is among the great miracles of dramatic art, gets lost, and the whole appears incoherent.

      I don’t want to make too much of this as, after that opening scene, this production does not put a foot wrong, but teh opening scene does remain a blot.

      Reply

  5. Posted by MIchael Harvey on August 15, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Directors sometimes play this directorial trick with ‘As You Like It’ by overdoing the darkness and menace of the Duke’s court in the opening scenes. The forest where Rosalind, Celia and Orlando escape to, like the wood in ‘The Dream’, is a place of transformation where evils disappear. Well, not quite, Touchstone and Audrey are in for a rocky time I fear….

    Reply

  6. Posted by MIchael Harvey on September 12, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Well, I got to Stratford and a seat on the second row stalls for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, for me an enjoyable, often funny, but not entirely satisfactory production. It’s all very subjective, but the style of the production rather intruded and robbed the play of some of its charm for me. I was disappointed in the portrayal of Puck who should I think be mecurial – which this one wasn’t. I didn’t really like the fairies much. Sometimes I thought the comedy in the lovers’ quarrel and ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ was overdone. These scenes were often funny but I found myself thinking ‘use all gently’ (Hamlet’s advice to the Players). It’s very easy to overdo the lovers and the Mechanicals in the last act and overload then with comic business.
    There has been much talk at Stratford about Lucy Briggs Owen who played Helena. She was good – I loved her ‘I am your spaniel’ – but I think she had been given her head too much. I also felt this about her Luscinda in ‘Cardenio’. I thought the Mechanicals were the most successful performances – in spite of being given their head in the last act. I liked Bottom (Marc Wooton) a lot. I loved the business (new to me) of bringing ther workmen into the first scene to do repairs.
    On the whole I think the production lacked enchantment and a sense of dreaming. The final moments as Oberon and Titania bless the house and Puck delivers the final speech should be absolutely magical, floating on the music, and sending the audience home with fairy-dust in their eyes.
    I remember Peter Hall’s Elizabethan production which all took place in the hall of an Elizabethan house, the staircases and walls of which sprouted leaves and branches for the forest…..utterly enchanting. This play is so very Elizabethan I think, very much of its period, and a too radical a production tends to spoil its atmosphere.
    But I know this play very well indeed and maybe am over-critical.

    Reply

    • Hello Michael, given your natural reluctance to be harsh, I do get the impression that you disliked this production immensely. You certainly have the advantage of me in that you have seen a great many productions of this play in the past, including many classic productions, and thus have very high standards to judge against. The only performance of this play I have seen before on stage was many years ago, and it was, frankly, bland: the four young lovers did not project any character or individuality; the big quarrel scene in the middle of the play involving these four passed for nothing; and the “Pyramus & Thisbe” sequence at the end only got a few nervous giggles. Comparing the current production with that one, I suppose “overblown” is preferrable to “underblown” – if such a word doesn’t exist, it does now! – although I’d love to see what you would have made of this play as director. No doubt this would have been a finer evening with a bit more subtlety and understatement, a bit less knockabout ad a bit more poetic finesse. Nonetheless, not, admittedly, having seen the classic productions of this work with which I could compare, I did leave the theatre with a feeling of enchantment.

      My main grouse about this production still seems to me that ill-judged opening scene: the joyous nuptial celebrations with which the play ends simply weren’t consistent with this opening. No doubt, one may say that the dream has transformed the waking world – but how? How can the dream transform Theseus when he explicitly says that he does not believe in the dream? If Hyppolita can spit on Theseus when he refuses to judge in Hermia’s favour at the start of the play, how can she be so joyously reconciled to him even before she knows that he has changed his mind on the matter?

      The two most lyrical productions I have seen of Shakespeare’s comedies are of “Twelfth Night” at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton some time back in the late 70s (and I wish I could remember who the cast & director were!), and John Barton’s glorious production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in Stratford in ’78: indeed, if forced to name the most perfect production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen, I’d nominate this production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”.

      Reply

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