10. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
We’re definitely entering some of Shakespeare’s ‘glory years’ here with three of his plays that I probably know the best all happening in a row – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself already – let’s focus first on this week’s play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Dream is probably the most known of all Shakespeare’s plays. It is generally viewed as the most child friendly so is often used to introduce young audiences to Shakespeare’s work. I personally have been in one production of it (in which I played Puck), have seen more productions of it than I can remember, and have also run many workshops on the play for both primary and secondary schools. So, you would think it would be one of the plays that would have the least impact on me during this Shakespeare A Week challenge? Wrong! It has been fascinating re-reading this play and has completely changed my perception of it.
The main thing I took from my re-reading of this play is that it really isn’t that funny! Yes, I know – what?! Shakespeare heresy! But before you berate me for attacking one of Shakespeare’s most-loved plays, I don’t mean that it isn’t funny and therefore is bad. I mean it is actually far more interesting and deals with far weightier issues than it is usually given credit for. I mean that Dream is much much more than a light and silly comedy.
Why do I say this? Well, because all the characters are going through serious turmoil and the stakes are incredibly high. This is not silliness; this is drama that has the potential to end in tragedy at any moment. We must remember that this is a story fundamentally about female oppression. It opens with Duke Theseus about to marry Hippolyta, who he has essentially taken as a trophy bride after his conquest of her people. Theseus is then greeted by his friend Egeus, who is so determined to enforce the patriarchy that he is prepared to see his daughter executed if she marries the man she loves, rather than the man he has chosen for her. This dynamic is then continued in the relationship between the King and Queen of the Fairies – Oberon and Titania. Titania, quite understandably, wants to rear the child of a mortal friend who died in childbirth, but Oberon (for no apparent reason) wants the child for himself and is prepared to go to great lengths to humiliate his Queen in order to bend her to his will. In other words, none of this actually sounds all that funny! BUT is a fantastic source of incredibly powerful dramatic action.
In fact, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated when I was reading the play, that the characters are so often reduced to comic stereotypes. Hermia becomes a small, pretty, slightly spoilt child; Lysander a soppy, poetic hipster; Demetrius a grumpy and sullen puppet for Egeus; Helena a whiny, pathetic and incredibly lanky drip. This doesn’t do justice to Shakespeare’s characters at all. Hermia stands up to her father and the Duke, risking her own death to protest her right to marry the man she loves. Lysander risks the wrath of the Duke and Egeus by plotting to elope with Hermia, leaving behind his home and, in doing so, joins Hermia’s act of protest. Helena is deeply upset by the whole situation, she is desperately in love with a man who she had been engaged to, but who has broken off the engagement to pursue her best friend instead – Hermia is, therefore, both her only friend and her worst enemy all in one. Demetrius has been engaged to Helena, then (for some reason) backed out of this engagement and attempted to woo Hermia, enlisting the support of Hermia’s father to help his cause. I go into this much detail because I think it’s really important to recognise how much depth and conflict is written into these central characters from the outset. We do them, Shakespeare’s writing and the audience a massive disservice when we reduce them to comic ciphers.
I even think the seriousness of their plight extends into the forest and the chaos that ensues when Puck mixes up the love spell and all the lovers end up loving the wrong people. Often this is reduced to light farce, the characters becoming ridiculously over the top as soon as they are under the love spell. I’d love to see this played in complete earnest. It is clear from the way all the characters speak that they are deadly serious. This doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be funny – the situation is comic and should take care of itself. From a director’s perspective, I’d be really interested to just play the truth of the situation, forget that it is ‘supposed’ to be a comedy and trust that if it’s funny it will be funny.
My final and most controversial(!) take on the play, is that the mechanicals should be massively cut and that the final play should be cut altogether. Again, I know, Shakespeare heresy. But the reason is simply that the play structurally works brilliantly when you have the main plot (the lovers from the court of Theseus) and the sub-plot (the struggle between Oberon and Titania). The two plots interweave perfectly, and the themes (as mentioned above) are consistent. The mechanicals are a dramaturgical anomaly. In terms of dramatic action, they add very little to the piece – only providing Oberon and Puck with the means of humiliating Titania. By the time the play-within-a-play is rolled out at the end, the story is finished – the lovers are all paired off and Oberon and Titania have made peace. The play is over. It would be a brave call, but I’d be seriously tempted to hack the mechanicals back to the absolute essentials and make up for it by diving much deeper into the dynamics of the rest of the play.
I absolutely loved re-reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week. I am now absolutely determined to give it a go as a director and put my spin on a well-worn and much-loved classic. I’m actually seriously tempted to get some actors together (via Zoom!) and see if I can have a play with some sections just to give this ‘serious’ approach to the text a go. My instinct is it would work really well and allow us to see a relevance and a depth to this play that has been overlooked for quite some time.