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– possibly, like the ones in Measure for Measure, a law that had fallen into disuse, but which had not yet been repealed: at any rate, it seems quite clear that Theseus is most unwilling to put this law into practice.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.