Saturday, 25 July 2009

Dream on

'Out of this wood do not desire to go,' says Titania to Bottom. The wood is the place of confusion and change. Once we enter it we are lost in the dream. '...Shakespeare availed himself of the title of this play in his own mind, and worked upon it as a dream throughout....' said Coleridge,

So here we are in a wood which is no more than a tiny copse in the garden in South Burlingham, watching and listening to another interpretation of the dream, this time with tiny Goth fairies flittering like flies or scrambling like spiders. The lovers yearn and hate and yearn again, their raw youth torn this way and that. The worldly powers outside the wood, now absolute, now complaisantly benign, think they have it all sorted, but are themselves subject to powers within the wood. Here is where things are turned upside down, yet righted.


The hurts appear small, but to the lovers they are piercing and bitter. Such rapid about-turns of passion might seem shallow. Surely if an affection can turn as quickly as this it cannot be worth much. We know this of course: it is just that they don't. They feel their lives breaking, and we - in this production particularly - feel it with them. Mortals may be fools, but then we know what it is to be both mortal and foolish. Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia are hard to play. Sometimes they seem no more than leaves flung about by an arbitrary wind. Their scenes are quite long. They could, given a poor production and performance, seem, well, long. Here they didn't, and don't.

The lovers love each other: we love the mechanicals. Here a spare, capering Bottom and an ancient Lion move to the gentle if frustrated directions of a sprightly and giggly Mistress Quince. The mechanicals are a harmless, knockabout troupe whose task is the carnivalesque - and therefore comic - dismantling of both language and social order, but who are so anxious not to cause fright or offence that they never quite become carnival. Carnival of a rather hierarchical sort is saved for the spirits of the wood. As for the mechanicals, they never stop being mechanicals. Throw them together this way or that, they still come up reliable and decent and well-intentioned, a carnival as faithful to worldly laws as a hopeless but affectionate dog is to its master. The mechanicals know their place. Moon appears, Wall appears. Here come Ninnies and Thisnes and and all the pre-malapropisms of the clumsy,

Pyramus and Thisbe make one of four sets of lovers. The others sets are Oberon and Titania, and Theseus and Hippolyta (who, we should not forget, is a war bride, a piece of booty). The fourth set is the young lovers who, being part of the same conundrum, count as a single package.

In terms of power, Theseus and Egeus wield naked power outside the wood,: Oberon and Puck within it. As Theseus to Egeus, so Oberon to Puck. Titania is the rampant ghost of Hyppolita reborn. That, to me at least, seems to be the pattern.

Bottom - this Bottom - doesn't bluster as much as some Bottoms do. He isn't a poor man's Sir Toby Belch: he is a poor man, albeit one with moments of high energy that burst from a poor man's tired body. He is the most plaintively human Bottom I have seen for a long time. Next to Snug he is the oldest of the mechanicals.

Oberon - this Oberon - is part daemon, part Jacobean schemer, part fly, part Prospero. Well, why not? I am sure we can imagine ourselves as all these at once. But it takes some acting to hold them together. He is not exactly the dark side, no more than any insect might be. This Lord of the Flies is not the devil himself. He says what he has to say precisely between speech and music - which is, after all, the province of poetry. And that is the key. He is an embodiment of poetry not of theology. He has whims instead of dogmas.

Puck - this Puck - is a slightly camp aesthete. Well, I suppose I'd better serve you. OK, OK I'm going already. Lord, what fools these mortals be... Like Oberon he is silver haired. Like Oberon, he understands poetry, that is to say understands it as verse as well as speech: in other words he has the music of it. He has heard plenty and enough of it in his life time, has been the subject and mediums of it. Puck the Mischief, the trickster, is subject to the Lord of the Flies, but his mischief has a residually independent life. Nothing serious. Nothing fatal. Nothing, at least, unforgivable.

The best of Shakespeare is forgiveness. Here there isn't really very much to forgive. Nothing serious happens, there is only a gift begrudged and a passion rejected. Powers are countered by powers. The better powers - those in the wood - must win, and do win. Nature is carnival. Nature is silver-haired mischief.

Ageing, silver-haired men are the very devil of course. What with an ageing Bottom and a positively ancient Snug (director P in Lion-mode) there is a case for calling the play, as P had it, A Midzimmer Night's Dream, but then this smattering of age actually adds something to the play, rather humanising it. These three silver men, plus Snug, are the zimmers, the props of the play. They ground everything, even the magic.


In that respect it is a male - indeed patriarchal - play, but of the lovers it is the women who are more individuated - at least in so far as one is tall and one short: one fights, the other runs away. Lysander and Demetrius, the young male lovers, are young and sportif blades, which is all you really need to know. All the more reason then to provide them with the full music of verse maturely understood. The poetry remains poetry in their mouths, as in all mouths.

The female principle finds its chief embodiment in Titania who has to be, and is - in this production - imperious, commanding not only her train of fairies, but the very ground she walks on. Jan Kott, in that marvellous essay of his, 'The Bottom Translation', described the erotic themes of the play. If that erotic power finds embodiment anywhere it must be in Titania - there isn't anyone else - who remains regal despite having bedded an ass. Very well, she can brush herself down and declare the affair done with and move on. The latent sympathy between Hippolyta and the female lovers has no space in which to expand though it was lightly touched in here: all the women are subject to war and patriarchs. That sad resentful energy is converted into erotic power in Titania. Nobody has to underline this. Given a commanding Titania, it's just how it is, at least within the ambit of the wood.


Towards the end of his essay Jan Kott says: There will always remain two interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream: the light and the sombre. And even as we choose the light one, let us not forget the dark one.

The dark is there in the poetry: the poetry is light freighted with dark. This production, like all P and M's past productions of the play, understands it very well. This probably as well as any as I remember.

The dark is there in the poetry. You could practically shut your eyes and still be in the play, but then you open them and there is dark Oberon and proud Titania and that insect-horde of fairies flitting about like magical flies. And humans go on living in passion and folly, under naked and hidden power. As Puck says:

Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate's team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic: not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow'd house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.

Hey, that's our dust, Puck. Go easy then. Dream on.


Pascale said...

Thanks George, a magical account of the magical play, one of my favourites, and I played Titannia at school so I remember delivering that line "Out of this wood do not desire to go" (it was a girls' school and the boys school came to watch). Love the light/dark motif.

George S said...

Thank you, Pascale. It is probably the Shakespeare I have seen most often, and it keeps getting better, more substantial.