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Manchester theatre reviews

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre Production

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Reviewed by Charlotte Starkey July 2012 


Thomas Bowdler, editor of The Family Shakespeare, took his task as a censor to take out of the text words or expressions that ‘could not with propriety be read aloud in a family’. It was variously published (1807 and 1818) just in time to anticipate the tastes of some nineteenth century households and his efforts have often been lampooned since then. A Midsummer Night’s Dream did not escape his eye.


Bowdler was not the first, nor to be the last, to amend, edit, truncate or adapt the texts of Shakespeare’s plays. Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) was to be gloriously illustrated in 1899 by Arthur Rackham (the programme gossamer-pink illustration for the Lyric/Filter production evokes that epoch of fairyland innocence).


This Royal Exchange / Filter’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream  appeared at the opposite pole to Bowdler’s prurient concerns. It was a twenty-first century ‘bowdlerisation’ complete with supermarket shopping bags (is this the first product-placement in Shakespeare?), walkie-talkie, Oberon (Jonathan Broadbent) in blue leotard something akin to Robin (of Batman fame, not Goodfellow of lore, but with a problematic colour sense), a foldaway tent feigning sex, synthesised woodland sounds and pop, some hilarious moments, and, in short, a good circus romp complete with the play’s slapstick.


Just to sound simplistic for a moment, if a play four hundred and twelve years old (entered in the Stationers’ Register 1600) with a strong carnival comedic narrative happens to inspire twenty first century actors to attempt to update it, why not write a new play? After all, if the update is needed, there’s clearly something missing at least in the current perception of the original. Just a thought because it is almost de rigueur to have a ‘contemporary’ take on most of Shakespeare today.


This is a vexed question but, to use a musical analogy, Bach may have inspired Whiter Shade of Pale but Procul Harum created something new and strongly argued their own disputed authorship of their haunting, enigmatic piece. They never made claims for it to be a ‘loose rendition’ of Bach’s Air on a G String. In a line of reasoning not far from this, why rehash Shakespeare for the needs of an audience today? Why not something new and allow the text we have of Shakespeare to exist for our time by speaking from his time in our terms, yes, but with respect for what we inherited? Otherwise we lose the sense of history – without which we lose our sense of who we are. And certainly a few characters found this out in Shakespeare’s play as this production revealed.


Jonathan Broadbent as Oberon. Photo by Jonathan KeenanOf course, it has recently been possible to study English Literature at some universities and never read a Shakespeare play or, as importantly, see or act in one. It is possible to go through school and never read him. This is central to the problem. Shakespeare is perceived to be inaccessible by some. He must be made ‘intelligible’ in a modern sense. For that must lie behind the desire to ditch the magic, the mystery, the ambiguities, the paradoxes in Shakespeare. Is there not enough slapstick comedy on television already - for that is one of the main ingredients of this production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? That, along with karaoke-style bawling into a microphone, the Royal Exchange stage became more like a pub scene, or a slapstick comedy show in a riot. All good fun – but …? 


This will not go down well because this production of the Dream has been given the highest plaudits already in press reviews and the usual blog spots all singing to the heavens from the same hymn sheet about the wonderful comedy of this production. The audience, it appeared, absolutely adored the production. True: it is comic. I myself was laughing uncontrollably at times and the whole auditorium had an undercurrent of spontaneous and genuine laughter.


One problem is a full appreciation of the ‘adaptations’ in this production does demand an understanding of the original. The theatre is then, paradoxically and in its attempt to capture a ‘modern’ audience perhaps unused to Shakespeare even, reinforcing the essentially middle-class appeal in which theatre is so often embedded: quite unlike Shakespeare’s theatre which appealed to a complete cross-section of his own society for all kinds of reasons. I realise I am thumping a tub here but it is an important point: is the theatre today reducing Shakespeare, diluting the play for the laughs, seeking the current modish politically correct fashion by using Shakespeare’s play as a platform for the brilliance of a production? So what happened to the play? If it has to be changed so much, then again ask why was a new play not produced? Is the creative inspiration dead? That is not to say this play was not inventive, innovative. Quite the opposite; but was it Shakespeare? What happened to A Midsummer Night’s Dream?


In fairness this production has hit upon one of the most important theatrical points in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a play about play-making. That is evident from the opening hilarious preamble (Ed Gaughan as Quince is riotous in this role). The original version has some of its greatest comic moments when Quince gathers his madcap loveable company of would-be actors. Equally, I think this inspired approach shapes the production’s essential insight into the play. The programme notes are relevant here: we are told that the team ‘played fast and loose with the text’, that much has been cut; that this is essentially an experimental approach to the play.


The play itself, as text, makes comedy out of precisely that in the portrayal of Quince, Bottom, Flute, Snug and the rest around them including Puck. Other recent productions of other plays by Shakespeare have come forward indicating that the production arose out of some kind of collective, corporate, almost at times spontaneous evolution in performance. Certainly a key point for Shakespeare is that ‘life is a stage’, that all human activity is in important ways an ‘act’, performance. In this sense all productions are part of an ever-evolving unfolding of meaning that cannot be ‘fixed’. The point is, however, that this is precisely what Shakespeare’s play is saying; that is what the performance needs to illuminate.


If, in so doing, the performance we are watching is the product of a clever take on itself, almost demonstrating its own production processes and then constructs a new play, we cease to have the play it claims to be. We enter the hall of mirrors but that then makes it open house on the text, to play about with it to suit an interpretation. The play itself, and in the context of his other plays, is given no context. I would imagine a young student coming to this production after studying the play would have some problems in the context of other plays by Shakespeare. It may make Shakespeare as a commodity accessible for those seeing one of the plays for the very first time, a hook, if you like; but it is not making Shakespeare’s work in his wider context intelligible.


I am aware there are problems in what I am writing. We do know that the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage of Shakespeare, with the competing claims of Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, Dekker and the rest was a motley affair comprising an equally motley gang, that performances did move, change, become something different among rival troupes, pirated editions all living in conflicting proximity to one another. Yet that is far removed from the current trend to authenticate contemporary fashions in lifestyle and comic perceptions through Shakespearean drama. In the later drama of Shakespeare, in their conversely tragic view of life, that very ‘performance’ role, where life is an ‘act’, becomes the source of intense tragedy: human beings begin to believe the illusions about themselves they have created. In youth it can be comic (As You Like It); in middle age it is sad as in Malvolio; in old age it is unspeakably tragic as in King Lear.


Alan Pagan as Snug the Joiner (left) and Ed Gaughan as Peter Quince. Photo by Jonathan KeenanThe ‘truth’ of Shakespeare’s drama is that life outside the theatre is lived through acting, performance, role-playing; the comedy and tragedy is the not knowing, the forgetting the reality of the fictions in which they have come to exist. The Globe is a mirror of the globe. When Fuseli painted Titania Awakes, Surrounded by Attendant Fairies (1794) he strongly suggested that the fantasy of the aethereal lighting of the dream was inextricably bound with a nightmare’s darkness (the title of an earlier painting of 1781, The Nightmare). Bottom is comic; he is also a monster.


Admittedly one does not want to see endless repetitions of the televised ‘costume drama’ approach to Shakespeare where performers are talking clothes-horses; nor would the modern textually faithful interpretation of his plays be appropriate, either, if his main characters always appear as spivs from the city, deranged sex-maniacs or yet another vengeful adult asserting some ‘brief authority’. Part of the problem is the ‘lock-down’, the containment of meaning and musicality in Shakespeare into a precise ‘modern’ frame, whereas, on the other hand, Shakespeare’s text as we have it is forever slipping from any fixed meaning or time into magic.


Paradoxically that is another problem here. In attempting to subvert the play by ‘modernising it’, opening into new meanings, the performance loses that magic, the mystery of the original text; and the magic lies in the incredibly powerful words of Shakespeare’s characters where a donkey can be so lyrical and yet simultaneously so comic and subversive. When Puck announces that “My mistress with a monster is in love” there has to be a sense of the meaning in the rhythm of that line, the precise placing and accent of the words in it, in order to understand how seriously comic it is. Where the stage is riotous and loud throughout, as in this production, where the music as music exists alongside the text (and it is played well here by the musicians/actors – Alan Pagan, Chris Branch, Ed Gaughan) and in a way separate from it, there is a danger that the sound of the words is lost in the need to catch the laugh; and with that the multiplicity of meanings, the full richness of the ambiguities, can be lost, too. Shakespearean drama was not the modern Saturday night stand-up equivalent of music hall.


To illustrate a concern, the final words of Puck (Ferdy Roberts), so beautiful … 
…you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear… (V, I, 409)

could be lost in this translation. It is quite difficult to have these kinds of visions in a pub. Yet in these words Shakepeare’s The Tempest  is foreshadowed when Prospero speaks of the ‘insubstantial pageant’ performed on stage, like life itself. True, that play was yet to be written but the pervading preoccupations of Shakespeare’s drama can be lost if each production of each play is so riotously noisy that the poetry of the unfolding drama is drowned.


The production at the Royal Exchange is a good ninety minutes or so of laughter, split-second timing, cleverly choreographed slapstick, funky music, surprises and comic takes on comic figures. It takes us on its own journey, did not really need Shakespeare as an anchor. It is its own creation. Just don’t expect to pick up a different play Macbeth and grab the comedy; more importantly try not to miss the beauty of the magical mystery, the rebellious and subversive nature of the carnival, in the poetic lyrical fantasy of the original. If this production encourages us to go back to that, then it has served a purpose.


Editor's NoteWhat's behind a renaissance in the Arts? Well if you want to discuss this particular topic you should come along to the Manchester Salon on Monday 10 September and join in trying to answer the important question of what is new and changing in the Arts at the moment.
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