I hate reviews. I have little respect for the people who write them and have found from attending Press Nights that I invariably come away with different impressions than the reviewers. However, I am not alone in this. Many people who attend Shakespeare courses have a similar disregard for the press (as, of course, do the actors). So in this review, I try to present a broader view than just my own. There are short extracts from published reviews and also some comments from other people on this course (after we saw a production in late June during the study week). The latter will help place my own comments in context.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy. A comedy in the classification of Shakespeare is unnamed, ordinary people doing ordinary things (compare Tragedy which in Shakespeare is named ‘important’ people doing extraordinary things) though this is slightly against the grain when we have a fairy Queen, Titania, copulating with a donkey – but the marriage count (another ingredient for a Shakespeare comedy) at the end is well up to par to make up for this slight slipping of convention. Alternatively, comedy as the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary puts it is:
A drama (on stage, film, or radio) with a happy ending, chiefly representing everyday life and of a light, amusing, and often satirical character; any literary composition with similar characteristics.
The play is generally agreed to be 1594/1595 quite possibly to celebrate an upper class wedding. A strong candidate is that of the Countess of Southampton (mother of Shakespeare’s patron) to Sir Thomas Heneage. (RSC Programme).
There is not a single identifiable source. Shakespeare seems to have married various strands of myth and folklore Pyramus and Thisbe (from Ovid), Puck (from local folktale – witness for instance the 16th Century Broadside Ballad ‘The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow[i]’(RSC programme)), Theseus and Hippolyta (possibly from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives or from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale) Bottom’s transformation (linked to Apuleius’ The Golden Ass’) (RSC Programme).
The play, as I see it, has three main potentials or themes:
1) A sex comedy
2) A Romance
3) A Magical Twilight World / Dream World.
In the following categorised notes I shall return to these themes and what this production makes, or fails to make, of them.
Michael Boyd also did Much Ado About Nothing ( the title serving well as a judgement on Boyd’s attempt at Shakespeare - he had two actors wanking with a canvas ) i.e. this is not the first time he’s used sexual grossness as a cheap easy way of raising laughs. But it fails even more spectacularly here as bye, bye romance – here the potential for love-making is replaced by cheap and cheerful screwing. In Much Ado he also had the puerile slapstick trip of a table moving – even the actor doing this – Alex Jennings - had doubts about the production – as he expressed to the Shakespeare in Performance class of January 1997.
Tom Piper – designer. Has worked with Boyd before, for instance on Measure for Measure and this season’s Troilus and Cressida. He compresses the playing area by adding a semicircular wall at the back of the ellipse (vaguely reminiscent of the recent Measure for Measure). He makes up for this however, by using the height of the stage to good effect. For instance, Titania is raised up in her bed and Oberon is similarly high above the action in his chair. Both are higher than Alex Jennings was as Oberon in Adrian Noble’s 1995 production. We open with the cast in a semi-circle and the audience wondering who’s who – until ‘Stand forth Lysander’. This strikes a vague chord with the Oxford Playhouse’s 1994 Romeo and Juliet where we open with the whole cast as chorus[ii].
I have to admit that I subscribe to Hitchcock’s ‘actors should be treated like cattle’. There are too many ‘one-part wonders’, they receive a disproportionate amount of the credit, have too little variety in speech and movement and are too self-absorbed. (For instance, Richard McCabe’s claim that the cast was 90% of the input into a production, the directory 10% - what masturbation[iii]. However, …
Royals – Theseus and Hippolyta. Cross cast as has been the norm since Brook
with Oberon and Titania. The
Excellent performance by Josette Simon[iv] serious power dressing as well.
Nicholas Jones – as Theseus and Oberon. Head painting, and foot and hand and chest (apparently when we saw this in late June this was a recent introduction) (See the illustration on the title page of this essay). Excellent verse speaking.
Aidan McArdle as Puck/Philostrate – inventive turning of one into the other – undressing (this nod to ‘Full Monty’ is presumably deliberately to try to exploit’s the latter’s success)– but overuse of sex just unbalances the focus of the play. McArdle was apparently very popular with fourteen year old girls – who seemed to make up about half the audience on the night I saw the play. This could be seen as a clever piece of doubling, though, the master of court becoming the manipulator in fairyland; maintaining some of the characteristics and turns back at end.
Helena - Hermione Gulliford. Various shoes and dresses are made use of as she becomes more and more dirtied by the wood.
Hermia - Catherine Kanter . Somewhat elfish appeal and open.
Demetrius - Henry Ian Cusick. Plays more brutish than O’Donnell’s Lysander.
Lysander - Fergus O’Donnell. Plays the part as a charmer.
The Lovers as a group. Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, Hermia.
Certain lack of romance here. Played for laughs. Full of the sense that youth have had down through the ages of having invented sex. They all seem very pleased with their performances and certainly receive a lot of laughs but the lovers, when considering the rich potential of the source, are one of the biggest disappointments of this production. They do however, work hard and with enthusiasm and in the case of Catherine Kantor who is somersaulted off stage (on a good night onto a couple of mattresses in the darkness behind the semicircular false back wall to the elliptical stage) some bravery.
Led in the play by Peter Quince, but Bottom is the larger role and is also the part the audience sees as being the main one in the mechanicals, if not the whole play.
Daniel Ryan is good as Nick Bottom but doesn’t extract anything like the humour from the part as Barrit did a few years previously. It is a gift of a part, difficult to go completely wrong in. Could be a lot better. The rest of the mechanicals are individually good (Peter Kelly’s Peter Quince, for instance) but as a whole they just do not gel and they also need to think of more visual jokes. (The 1995 production very much grew through it’s run – at the end (which was when seasons ended in January) there were many more visual jokes (though Thisbe’s ‘dying’ became somewhat too OTT) than during the previous summer. So perhaps this production will grow too.) The burgmeister dance went down well with the audience, who were taken slightly off-guard by it, but I saw it as too much of a reference outside the play (Full Monty) while ignoring the content of the source itself. ‘Let those who play your clowns …’ . In fact much of Hamlet’s advice to the players could be held up in contradistinction to what happens in this production. My overall comment in this vein would be: some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. Though a close second would be the generally damning:
Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
censure of the which one must in your allowance
o'erweigh a whole theatre of others.
( I could go on. )
A school party did not return after the interval in an early matinee in the show’s run (March 24th). ‘A teacher, Stephen McGaw, marched his pupils out of the theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon after watching a man dressed as a donkey simulating sex with Titania, Queen of the Fairies’.(Carroll) This is certainly good for publicity but blatant screwing does not help a play that is supposed to involve romances in a magical setting. Strangely, the previous production also had blatant simulated copulating though in an upturned umbrella instead of a bed. So perhaps the RSC just had better luck with its school parties this time around.
Michael Boyd's magical A Midsummer Night's Dream, all charm and grace in pastel colours, inventive and finely detailed, with a high sexual charge (Holden). He continues in this enthusiastic vein: As Oberon and Titania, doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta, Nicholas Jones and Josette Simon are as winsome as authoritative, infecting all around them with a sense of mischief and command. Aidan McArdle makes a plausible Puck, Daniel Ryan a beguiling Bottom. Boyd's visual imagination rarely falters as he makes stylish sense of the supernatural.
Michael Billington of the Guardian is predictably enthusiastic: Michael Boyd's brilliant new version at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is consciously post-Brook: athleticism and energy are paramount and magic is visible. … Daniel Ryan's overweening Bottom … While paying homage to the past, Boyd's production lives urgently in the present and achieves the ecstasy that lies at the heart of Shakespearean comedy.
The above does not change my view of the press as largely failed novel writers inflicting positive or negative hyperbole on whatever raw material is handed them. The reviews may sound good but, unfortunately, have little to do with what was presented on the stage the night the course saw the play. Mercifully, they refrained from the obvious temptation of leading with “A Most Rare Vision”, presumably a most rare oversight – perhaps when it transfers to the Barbican …
There was a mixed bag of responses. On the whole we seemed not overwhelmed (except Peter) but felt it was at least fairly good. Liz thought Nicholas Jones “comic timing brilliant”. Rosemary shared my view that the mechanicals while individually applauded did not come together well. She also shared my view that there was not enough magic. There was also a feeling that there was not enough romance but Liz thought that it was intentional – that Shakespeare was showing us what life was really like (in that part of the play, of course, not the fairy side!). Sheila thought that there were “too many throwbacks to other things” and Jim “not a benevolent dream” (as do I). Peter had perhaps the most enthusiastic response “thought it was a work of entertainment … funniest thing for years. Faultless, energetic, uninhibited. People in love seem idiotic when they are in love” and cited his students as examples.
As with all Shakespeare’s plays a definitive production is not possible – the potential of the source is simply too great to be distilled into a single interpretation. However, I have seen other versions that are better in some respects. The lover scenes are difficult to keep going and can easily descend into a prat about. I like the relative innocence of the Reinhardt film with Cagney as Bottom and the delightful and magical incidental music by Mendelssohn. Returning to the RSC, Toby Stephens and Emma Fielding had more ideas to keep it going but then again perhaps later in this production’s run we’ll see it work a lot better. The previous RSC production is better overall in my view though. It is more balanced in the main areas mentioned above – more romance, more magic, less crude sex, benefiting from Des Barrit’s excellent Bottom and helped along by a magical set and, of course, Alex Jennings’ first-rate verse speaking and the wonderful Stella Gonet. Definitely a vintage production that the current crude outing cannot approach.
This is a difficult play to do badly(Howard), particularly as the re-designed stage is a natural help to any play but in this production the focus is very much in going out and out for a sex comedy and the romances and the magic are left by the wayside. AMND is a vast play and it is difficult to achieve a perfect balance. This is not a bad production BUT the balance is poor and like many others this production loses itself in over-concentrating in one of the main elements to the detriment of the others. I’d prefer watching the video of the Noble 1995 production to seeing this so limited attempt at what is a so fertilely conceived play.
[i] Robin Goodfellow A ``drudging fiend,'' and merry domestic fairy, famous for mischievous pranks and practical jokes. At night-time he will sometimes do little services for the family over which he presides. The Scotch call this domestic spirit a
brownie; the Germans, kobold or Knecht Ruprecht. The Scandinavians called it Nissë God-dreng. Puck, the jester of Fairy-court, is the same.
``Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. ...
Those that Hob-goblin call you, and sweet Puck
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.''
Shakespeare: Midsummer Night's Dream, ii. 1. (Cobham Brewer).
production I found far better than the RSC’s Varla-Whybrow ‘over-parted’ (
[iii] Richard McCabe was speaking at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Othello Day 16th July 1999. (He had not actually been invited to come and speak to us …)
Simon has various RSC successes behind her, perhaps most notably as Isabella in
Measure for Measure. She was also in seasons 3 and 4 of ‘Blake’s 7’ – where she
also performed well. Strangely, she does not seem to have aged since. (Fans of
the series may relate this to a Dorian Gray based story that started the 4th
Bibliography for A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC Summer 1999 Review
Billington, Michael ‘A Dream that will never die’, The Guardian, Saturday 27th March 1999.
Lesley (ed.) The New Shorter
Carroll, Rory ‘Over-sexed Shakespeare has shocked pupils voting with feet’ The Guardian, Friday 16th April 1999.
Cobham Brewer, E The First Hypertext Edition of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (WWW, 1998 but based on the paper ‘new and enlarged’ version of 1894).
Holden, Anthony ‘All the fun of the fairies’ The Guardian, Sunday 28 March 1999.
Holland, Peter. Speaking in his Season Survey for 1995.
Howard, Tony. ‘The Inheritance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream’ A paper, presumably unpublished, that he presented at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Study Day 30th April 1999.
Jennings, Alex. Speaking to the Shakespeare in Performance class in January 1977.
RSC 1995 Adrian Noble production, with Des Barrit, Alex Jennings, Toby Stephens, Emma Fielding. Saw this 2 or 3 times and the truncated channel 4 film version.
RST Programme for 1999 Production.
Shakespeare Studies class of ’99. Hastily scribbled notes of the classes discussion the morning after seeing the production.
Shakespeare, William Hamlet (WWW: MIT Shakespeare server, now) and (FTP: Gutenberg project, now)
Shakespeare, William A Midsummer Night’s Dream (WWW: MIT Shakespeare server, now) and (FTP: Gutenberg project, now)