On Sunday night, Midsummer’s Night, Paul Kincaid and I went to see Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the rather dream-like surroundings of an almost entirely empty auditorium in Canterbury. There were perhaps fifteen to twenty of us in a theatre that comfortably seats more than three hundred people. Given that people in Canterbury turn out in large numbers to see the live broadcasts from the Royal Shakespeare Company one might have supposed they had an appetite for Shakespeare generally, but apparently not. Maybe no one likes the play? Maybe there is some weird prohibition in Canterbury on going out on Midsummer’s Night. Or, maybe everyone has an appetite for watching the RSC do Shakespeare, but not anyone else. Indeed, I admit that when I booked the tickets I had thought we were seeing another RSC production, so was rather confused on Saturday to hear the Taymor film being trailed all over the media.
Given that Julie Taymor is best known for directing the stage production of The Lion King, I wonder if an element of snobbishness enters into this refusal to see the film. There were a couple of distinctively ‘Lion King’ moments but otherwise it hardly intruded on the production. I didn’t know Taymor had directed The Lion King so was spared this concern. Maybe the putative audience doesn’t like films of stage productions, although I don’t really know what the RSC and Royal National Theatre broadcasts are, if not films (having said which, as Paul Kincaid notes, neither the RSC or RNT filmed productions are blessed with a particular sense of the filmic, tending to rely on several fixed cameras and an over-reliance on long swooping shots to give a sense of the breadth of the production). Maybe the putative audience didn’t know, as I also didn’t, that Taymor has a long history of directing stage productions – theatre, musical and opera – and that this film is of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream she directed in Brooklyn in 2013. All I do know is that three hundred-plus people missed out, while fifteen to twenty of us had one of the strangest and most magical cinematic/theatrical experiences I can recall.
A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is not among my favourite Shakespeare plays, probably because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of it that tries to make any sense of what’s going on. Those I have seen have focused on the ‘lovers lost in the forest’ aspect, along with the transformation of Nick Bottom into an ass (you can invariably feel the wardrobe department salivating at the prospect of transforming a man into a talking donkey). The ‘magic’ generally seems to derive simply from the fact of there being fairies in the play in the first place, that and a bit of legerdemain with a magic flower. I’ve never seen a production that was in any way ‘magical’. Indeed, I can’t think of a single production I’ve seen that really thought about the fact that most of the play is not set in the city – that is, the place of civilisation, of social rules and polite behaviour – but in that dark Shakespearian forest that pushes up against the walls of every city state, and that is the place of first resort for those for whom the rules of polite society no longer work, the place where the law of the city does not extend, a point made by Lysander when he and Hermia decide to run away together to get married beyond the law of Athens. As for the ‘dream’ of the title, while the play’s opening has Hippolyta talk about how the four days until her marriage to Theseus will be dreamed away, the idea of the dream is usually acknowledged at the end of the play, when the four mortals marvel at the strange dreams they had while they were in the forest and then return to their city lives, but there is rarely if anything ‘dreamlike’ about the play as it unfolds.
Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an altogether different beast from any production I’ve seen before. The play opens with a gawky, badly dressed figure in white-face falling asleep on a bed in the middle of an otherwise empty stage. As the figures sleeps the bed suddenly rises from the floor, elevated by a small forest of branches. The bedsheet is fastened to lines by a team of workmen who have suddenly appeared, and the next thing the audience knows, the sheet transforms into the sky, the figure has vanished into that sky, and the bed has been cut away from its forest roots by a chainsaw. It makes perfect sense and yet no sense at all, but like so many dreams it doesn’t really matter. The white-faced figure will shortly be revealed to be Puck, so we are immediately presented with the intriguing prospect that this play, this Dream, is a fairy’s dream to begin with: ‘Lord, what fool these mortals be’. Or maybe Hippolyta is already dreaming?
This strong sense of dislocation, of detachment from the ordinary or conventional, underlines something that the previous productions I’ve seen never really seemed to grapple with, and that’s the cruelty of the play. Considering that the heart of it is supposedly the celebration of a wedding, between Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Dream is actually incredibly dark, more like a warning about the perils of marriage than something celebratory. Consider how the formal play opens, with Egeus seeking Theseus’s support for his invocation of an ancient Athenian law which ensures that either his daughter, Hermia, will marry the man he has chosen for her, Demetrius, or she will be put to death. Hermia, in love with Lysander, has already refused Demetrius, despite her father’s insistence. Theseus, however, is bound by the law, and the best he can do, he says, is to offer her a further choice, a chaste half-death in a nunnery. Robert Langdon Lloyd’s portrayal of Egeus as a man so angry you half expect the camera lens to be spittle-flecked as he rants is startling, while Duke Theseus’s rigid adherence to the law also suggestive. He could overrule Egeus in a moment but this lack of flexibility, this unwillingness to exercise power, particularly at a point when his own life is theoretically in a state of happiness makes you begin to wonder about the nature of his own forthcoming marriage. Is it purely symbolic and dynastic? Is Theseus perhaps acutely aware that he is marrying a woman who is queen in her own right, and someone unlikely to allow him to curtail her freedoms?
And so, Lysander and Hermia make a plan to meet beyond the city walls after dark, and to make their way to Lysander’s aunt’s house, beyond the law of Athens, where they can wed. Hermia tells her best friend, Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, who has eyes only for Hermia. Hoping to win Demetrius’s favour, Helena tells him about the proposed escape, and then follows him devotedly into the forest as he sets off to murder Lysander and reclaim Hermia: ‘I am your spaniel … the more you beat me, I will fawn on you’.
And as if this weren’t enough, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, are in dispute over a mortal child that Oberon wants for his entourage, and he determines to teach her a lesson by bewitching her, so that she falls in love with the first thing she sees … which is of course Bottom the weaver, his head replaced by that of an ass, an embellishment of Puck’s. What better way to celebrate a marriage than by presenting us with a series of abusive relationships? Yes, there are comical moments but there is the sense too that the laughter is uneasy, as though we are being asked to consider not only the fates of these four couples but the state of our own relationships too.
On top of that, there is a constant undermining of power and authority. Egeus cannot control his daughter. Theseus cannot control his state (which may be a good thing on one level, but it would seem he cannot do anything about antiquated laws either). Oberon is subject to the carelessness of his servant, Puck. It is worth noting that here Puck is played as a variant of the fool, but here emphasising the fact of his mistake rather than the dazzling wit we expect of Shakespeare’s fools. Of the women, only Hippolyta seems not to be entangled by love. The whole story is presented as enmeshed in constraint, reflected in the costumes of the characters. Demetrius is, literally, buttoned up, as is Egeus and, to a slightly lesser extent, Theseus. Hermia wears a rather foolish little puffed dress, at variance with the steel her character will later show. At the beginning and the end, we see Puck tightly encased in clothes that don’t fit, as though he is free only when he is in the fairy world, or in a dream, where the jacket comes off and he seems more like a workman. The mechanicals are more comfortably dressed than their supposed betters. It’s almost a shock, at the end, to see them in costume for the play. Lysander is dressed languidly, while Helena is more practically dressed than Hermia, and Hippolyta’s costume pays lip service to court convention while looking as though she might hitch up those skirts and run like the wind at a moment’s notice. In the woods, the four lovers end up wandering around in their underwear, perhaps signalling the stripping away of city mores, or maybe indicating that this too is a dream.
The production scores high on magicality as well. It makes heavy use of huge white sheets onto which images are projected as they billow across the stage, to be skies, clouds, hammocks. All this is coupled with the singing of the rude elementals in elaborate arrangements of sound that reminded me a lot of Steve Reich’s work. Other than that, special effects are limited. At one point Puck flies on a wire but when the fairies fly, they are in fact being carried by stage hands dressed in black, all very reminiscent of the puppet daimons in the RNT’s production of His Dark Materials. The magical forest – and this forest does seem to come alive – is formed of staves carried by the same stage hands. It’s surprisingly effective. The only real nod to The Lion King is a brief hunt scene, with three deer in familiar headdresses being chased by a pack of children-hounds.
The acting throughout is never less than good, and on occasion goes far beyond that. As Paul Kincaid remarked, there is that brief moment of being taken aback slightly by hearing American accents when one is used to English accents but that lasts about five seconds and the next two and a half hours zoom past. The young men are pretty, as young male actors are wont to be, these days. Lilli Englert (Hermia) and Mandi Masden (Helena) seemed to me to give more visceral performances than the kind of thing I’m used to seeing from young female Shakespearian actors (with one or two honourable exceptions, such as the RSC’s Michelle Terry), which was welcome. David Harewood’s Oberon was commanding, and all the actors playing the Mechanicals were splendid (Taymor presented them as a group of New York workmen, which ought to have jarred horribly with the rest of the play but, curiously enough, didn’t, perhaps because they were so firmly anchored when everyone else was so entirely adrift).
The outstanding actor was Kathryn Hunter, as Puck. She is known for a particularly physical style of performance and her Puck was agile and yet so strangely angular, and curiously still for someone who can allegedly put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. It’ always tempting to think of Puck as a slim young child-figure, whereas this Puck is a creature of experience, tempered with puzzlement by the behaviour of mortals. She was extraordinary.
And having said that, I have certain reservations about the production. White Theseus, black Hippolyta (the Amazon queen, of course), and in contrast black Oberon (with a little Lion King gold paint for that extra exotic touch), white (icy white) Titania: I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be reading from this. It is traditional for Theseus/Oberon and Titania/Hippolyta to be played by the same actors – was this version supposed to suggest a muddling of tradition, suggest something about the characters’ hidden natures. More problematic to me was the presentation of Helena by an African-American woman, dressed in sober Sunday church-going costume, talking about how she had always been Hermia’s friend, and then trailing after Demetrius, representing herself as his dog. It is Helena, after all, who has the speech about feeling less than her friend, not looking as beautiful, and Helena who believes herself to be mocked when both men claim to love her. And Helena who only gets her man because he remains bewitched. It was hard not to read some sort of sub-text into this, though for the life of me I couldn’t work out whether Taymor had made a deliberate choice here. One is forced to assume that David Harewood’s costume of baggy trousers, bare chest, body paint, all overtly exotic, was. Perhaps the intention was that I should, the next day, be thinking over that in my mind.
And yet, having said all that, I think about this production and weigh it against the two RSC productions I’ve seen recently: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Love’s Labour’s Won, and I know which of the three is the best. The RSC productions had fine actors but the actual look of the plays was so dull. There was little sense of energy or excitement about them. They felt very staid and conventional by comparison with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So, while I may have messed up when I made my bookings, I think on the whole it was a fortunate error, and a midsummer night well spent.