A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM
A splendid cast that includes Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Sophie Marceau, Michelle Pfeiffer, David Strathairn and Stanley Tucci brings to life this dynamic and enchanting new version of Shakespeare’s most magical comedy. Teeming with dangerous potions, fairy warfare and misbegotten romances, “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the wondrous tale of a singular night in which roguish spirits turn the world of love on its head.
Writer/director Michael Hoffman brings this timeless story to a unique and unexpected place and time: Tuscany at the end of the 19th century. Amidst a sensuous and charming world of terraced hillsides and succulent culinary delights, Shakespeare’s characters get a new comic lease on life as they explore their world on the new-fangled invention of the bicycle. Flying into the woods on two wheels, Tuscan nobles, actors and lovers find themselves at the mercy of mischievous sprites who rule the natural world.
It all begins when Hermia (Anna Friel) and Lysander (Dominic West) flee deep into the forest to escape Hermia’s father, Egeus, who wishes Hermia to marry Demetrius (Christian Bale). Demetrius goes in pursuit of his true love Hermia, and is soon followed by yet another desperate lover: Helena, who adores Demetrius but finds her affections dreadfully unrequited. Crashing, flailing and falling into mud puddles, the foursome find themselves near the secret home of the fairies, where water nymphs and satyrs party into the night at the fairy bars and cafes. Chaos ensues when the fairy trickster Puck (Stanley Tucci) administers a secret love potion — causing the lovers to mix-and-match with outrageous results. Meanwhile, a band of actors gather in the same woods to put on a play — a play that is interrupted when its star actor Bottom (Kevin Kline) becomes a strange pawn in the love battles between Oberon (Rupert Everett), King of the Fairies, and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) his Queen.
Shot on location in Italy, “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a 400-year-old whimsical romantic comedy as it’s never been seen before.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
“At the beginning I just had an image of this fat little Puck riding through the Tuscan countryside on the back of a turtle,” says director Michael Hoffman.
“The rest of the film sort of spun out from that.”
Actually, the inspiration for Hoffman’s desire to write his screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” came from a performance of the play, in which he played Lysander. This production was staged with other dissidents from his university theater depai intent in Boise, Idaho. A few years later, while studying theater at Oxford, he directed another production of the play that led to his first offer to direct a film.
Today, the company Hoffman and his friends started in Boise is building a $3 million theater, and he has just completed his eighth film. Little wonder that it should be an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “I’ve always felt there was a blessing for me in this play,” he says.
Producer Leslie Urdang is the founder of New York Stage and Film, a distinguished Manhattan production and workshop center where many members of the cast — Calista Flocichart, David Strathaim, Roger Rees, Bill Irwin and Sam Rockwell — have performed. As a child, Urdang herself danced the role of a fairy in the 1966 film of George Ballanchine’s ballet based on the play.
Urdang observes that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a perennial favorite for school productions, is the one Shakespeare play everyone seems to know.
“Everyone you talk to seems to have played a character in it,” she says, “whether it’s an actor or your dentist who did it at kindergarten or summer camp. It’s the one you can bring your kids to — in some ways it’s a lot like ‘The Wizard of Oz.”
When Hoffman and Urdang started talking about filming “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” more than two years ago, they discovered that they had similar casting ideas. Urdang felt Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline would be ideal for the film version, while Hoffman had been talking to Kline since they worked together on “Soapdish.” After directing Pfeiffer opposite George Clooney in “One Fine Day,” Hoffman told Urdang that he agreed with her. “Who could be better than Michelle Pfeiffer,” he says, “with her acting talent and extraordinarily ethereal beauty, to play the Queen of the Fairies?” Six weeks later he came back with a script.
Shakespeare had originally set his story in an English version of ancient Greece where Elizabethan spectators would have felt right at home. Looking for a setting closer in time for a contemporary audience, while keeping the highly formal aristocratic culture in which it takes place, Hoffman decided to transport the story to Tuscany, a part of Italy he knows well, at the turn of the century.
“It’s the beginning of the end of the high collars and bustles, a certain loosening up of the culture,” says Urdang. “The bicycle, which plays a part in Michael’s script, was a relatively recent invention which also brought a new kind of freedom to travel without being shut up in a coach.”
“Besides-that-the setting-is Italy, where the civilized culture is smack up against a passion for food, the love of the countryside, and of all the more natural elements of the world,” adds Urdang.
“So when we go into the forest, all the clothes come off,” Anna Friel sums up succinctly. The centerpiece for the wild night in the forest are the scenes between Titania and Bottom, where Hoffman found his film’s emotional core.
“Bottom is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic inventions,” says Kevin Kline. “He’s the paradigm for all ham actors — he wants to play all the parts, and he thinks he’s God’s gift to theater. Actually, there’s a little bit of Bottom in everyone who has ever stood on a stage. It’s a dream role for actors because they can get in touch with that childish love of make-believe that motivates any actor.”
“But Bottom also has the soul of an artist,” adds Kline. “He loves to escape the reality he’s in, to discover something more noble and more beautiful about himself” — which the character achieves through his tryst with Titania, the Queen of the Fairies.
“Michael made the love story between Bottom and Titania very different from what it has been before,” says Urdang. “In his version, Bottom really falls in love with Titania.”
“What if Bottom, as the king of amateur dramatics, has delusions of grandeur about himself as an actor because he doesn’t have any love in his life?,” proposes Hoffman. “So I started to build a story for him — a frustrating life and an unhappy marriage.”
“Writing the adaptation with Kevin in mind, Michael made him a type of Italian character that Marcello Mastroianni might have played,” Urdang says, “a man who reclaims his dignity from a deeper place in himself that he finds through love.”
Michelle Pfeiffer points out that Titania, too, is experiencing marital strife, and this makes her passion for Bottom more understandable. “Titania and Oberon are King and Queen,” she says, “so they have different rules to live by than Titania and Bottom do. I think that the relationship with Bottom is very liberating for her in its simplicity.”
To ensure Kline’s facial expressions in the scenes with Pfeiffer would be captured, Hoffman had make-up wizard Paul Engelen create a new look for Bottom after his “translation,” with long donkey ears and furry cheeks. “For centuries, when Bottom was enchanted, he would put on an ass’s head and vanish as a character,” says Hoffman. “Paul’s make-up enabled Kevin still to be Kevin and very present.”
“He’s really cute as a donkey,” adds Pfeiffer mischievously. “All the girls think so.” – – – —
Filming began with the scenes where Bottom and his fellow “actors” rehearse the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus’ wedding day. “I knew a lot of these guys from the theater and have worked with them before in film,” says Kline, “so there was an instant ensemble feeling.” Hoffman wanted their scenes to be funny, but he also felt they should underscore the theme of dignity lost and regained that is the heart of Bottom’s story. Again, the Italian setting provided the key.
“Having lived in a Tuscan village,” he recalls, “I remember sitting in the town square watching four or five middle-aged guys around a table in a bar playing cards. You realize that they’ve lived in that town and been friends since they were boys. That’s what I wanted the acting troupe to feel like. They’re a little downtrodden and they band together and put this play on. They succeed in actually accomplishing something, and I think that’s very moving.”
In shaping the scenes with the four lovers who flee into the woods and become enchanted, Hoffman was aware of a different problem. “Having played Lysander and Demetrius, I know the feeling,” he says. “You’ve got the mechanicals on one side of you getting laughs and the fairies on the other. How do you avoid being bland ingenues? That’s where the bicycles came in handy.
They create an obstacle and a level of comedy that you don’t have to go over the top to achieve.”
The absurdity of people chasing after love on bicycles enabled the actors to concentrate on finding the laughs where Shakespeare put them — in the hairpin turns the youthful characters’ emotions are put through by Puck’s love potion.
“The comedy is in the writing and you don’t need to do very much to get laughs,” says Christian Bale. “It’s about how people who are in love think they’re sane, but to anybody else they’re insane. The humor is really in their passion and the seriousness.”
“For example, I saw Demetrius as an authoritarian, slightly militaristic, not a very likable guy,” continues Bale. “Then when he is put under Puck’s spell he’s suddenly this dopey love-fiend.”
Says Dominic West, who plays the passionate Lysander: “Lysander loves Hermia until they go into the woods — his darker side is revealed when the fairies put drugs in his eyes. He falls in love with his lover’s best friend, as so
often happens, but she rejects him. When he wakes up, he falls back in love with the right person, but he’s learned something along the way.”
“Shakespeare wrote this play just after ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and it’s really ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with laughs,” West continues. “He’s shown how ridiculous people are when they say, ‘I love her so much I’ll kill myself if I can’t have her.’
In one way that’s great and in another way it’s stupid.”
“If Hermia is crying, which is something she does quite frequently, I cry for real,” says Anna Friel, “because these characters are very real.” Her character has a right to cry: After starting off in the enviable position of being chased by two suitors, Hermia finds that she has been suddenly and inexplicably dumped by both of them for her best friend, whom she was feeling sorry for only a short time ago.
Calista Flockhart plays Hermia’s friend Helena, who pedals after Demetrius when he follows Hermia into the woods. “People rail Helena obsessed,” says Calista Flockhart, “but I like to think of her as hugely determined.
I think she knows that, somewhere inside him, Demetrius loves her and she just has to get his attention — that’s what gives her confidence.”
“She’s not only obsessed with Demetrius,” clarifies Flockhart. “She’s a little obsessed with her bike. It was a bit heavy, which was great, because it gave me an incredible obstacle to work with.”
The director says that the bike also proved useful in delineating Helena’s character. “It ends up symbolizing all the things she mythologizes about herself which make her a victim,” he says, “like the idea that she’s not pretty enough or good enough or lovable enough. It becomes this thing she carries around with her, like all the negative concepts of herself that she is eventually able to get rid of.”
Helena’s obsession seems to have been transferred to the director: During filming at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, Michael Hoffman was often seen personally testing the antique bicycles that were used in the film, making sure that the brakes and other equipment worked before turning them over to his actors.
As rich in comic and dramatic meaning as the bicycles turned out to be, he says, they started off as a solution to the practical problem posed by the film’s limited budget for special effects: “Puck says things like, ‘I go, I go, look how I go /Swifter than an arrow from a Tartar’s bow’ and ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes.’ And I thought, what am I going to do with that?”
Then it occurred to me, maybe the turtle gets swapped for a bicycle And what if Puck has never seen a bicycle?”
That led to an inspiration for the film’s opening that helped solve what
Hoffman considered the biggest challenge in filming “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “The hard thing for me was always the fairy world,” he says. “The make-up department created creatures that penetrate a lot of the conscious levels of defense and look a little like something you’ve seen in your dreams. But how do you move from the concrete world of real rocks and stones to this remarkable set full of nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, Medusas and two- faced creatures?”
So during the film’s opening panorama of a bustling-Tuscan town square; filled with 300 extras dressed by costume designer Gabriella Pescucci in turn-of- the-century costumes, sharp-eyed spectators will spot satyrs in street clothes who sport horns under their hats and little satyr feet, carting off spoils to adorn the fairy kingdom from which they come and upgrade its technology.
“We used the same russets, ochres and burnt siennas for that scene that we see later in the Magic Forest, to marry the two worlds,” says production designer Luciana Arrighi. “Montepulciano, where we filmed the scenes in the square and the theater, is an extraordinary place with wonderful architecture — not a normal Italian piazza at all.”
The fairies, who are responsible for a spell of bad weather described in the play, must have been at work when filming on that location: Upon arriving in Montepulciano, known for its rolling green hills and its unique Tuscan light, the crew was confronted with a heavy spring snowfall. Producer Urdang enlisted scores of locals with shovels, and on the first day of shooting cinematographer Oliver Stapleton bathed the Piazza with golden light, while prop boys energetically swept away the remaining piles of snow.
Weather problems had vanished by the time the company arrived at the Villa d’Este, where scene painters added a fresco portraying Cupid’s exploits to the magical frescoes of forests and rivers that already adorned the site. The interiors of Theseus’ palace were filmed there, while the palace exteriors and wedding feast were filmed at the Palazzo Famesi in Caparolla.
The production’s masterpiece was, of course, the Magic Forest, which occupied a whole soundstage at Cinecittd. For the fairy world hidden within the forest, Hoffman and Arrighi drew on traditions that identify fairies with pre- Christian deities. “We decided they were Pagans and should inhabit the temples and other places of a former civilization,” says Arrighi, “specifically the Etruscan civilization that preceded Roman culture on this part of the Italian peninsula.”
Mysterious, magical and threatening, Oberon’s kingdom is a great valley where former Etruscan temples and tombs are overgrown with roots and greenery, while Titania’s world, inspired in part by pre-Raphaelite paintings, is more feminine — a little classical temple that the fairies inhabit, with a nest that can be raised and lowered for their Queen.
If Federico Fellini was watching from on high, he would have been surprised by the smell of the fresh woods, plants and flowers on his Soundstage 5, for nothing in the Magic Forest was fake. And he would certainly not have been disappointed by the set for the Fairy World, which was the most luxurious and stunning decor built there since the Rex, the mighty ocean liner in
“And the Ship Sailed On.” Ponds, mud, bubbling waters, smoke, fire and pathways where actors sometimes got-lost for real-in the immense construction . .. a fascinating and romantic setting, with satyrs fixing bicycles in their rocky workshops, fairies sewing in small grottos and a Hoffman invention: the Fairy Bar, one of the film’s modern surprises.
At the end of a difficult nine-week shoot, Hoffman and Urdang were confident that they had pulled off the difficult task of bringing visual, emotional and thematic unity to the many worlds of the play.
“It’s got something for everyone,” says Urdang. “For young people, it’s about the impulsiveness and obsessiveness of young love, the obstacles you encounter and how you work through them. With the more mature lovers, Titania and Oberon and the Duke and his bride, it’s about the balance of power between men and women and the respect each side gives to the other. It’s also about the idealized love between Bottom and Titania, which I think we all understand — that ideal love we take back in our hearts from the dark forest, which afterwards informs the way we see the world.”
“As I worked on it, the theme of the film became for me the conflict between love and dignity and how much of yourself you’re willing to give up to have love,” says Hoffman. “The desire for love in all these people is very strong, whether it’s in Oberon, who wants to give almost nothing away or Helena, who’s willing to give everything away. They are really the film’s polar opposites and Bottom’s story shows that sometimes you can reclaim your dignity by losing it for love.”
Stanley Tucci, playing an older Puck who seems a little weary of setting speed records while carrying out Oberon’s orders, says that it all goes back to “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “It’s a shameless comedy, but it’s also like all Shakespeare plays. They’re incredibly beautiful and poignant. . . and there’s always love.”
HISTORY OF THE PLAY
Judging by its mature poetic style, scholars believe that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was written in 1595 or 1596, two years when the English countryside experienced-unusually rainy summer weather, to which the play seems to allude:
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock;
The nine-men’s-morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes of the wanton green
For want of tread are undistinguishable.
It is thought to have first been performed at a noble wedding, with children from both noble houses recruited to play the fairies, and Queen Elizabeth herself — Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” — present as guest of honor to hear Oberon’s tribute to her as the “fair vestal throned by the west,” immune to Cupid’s darts.
That first production would have been acted by men and boys in contemporary Elizabethan attire. There would have been virtually no scenery or stage effects, although it is possible that the boy-actor playing Puck made his second act exit (to the words “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes”) swinging on a rope like Mary Martin in “Peter Pan,” and repeated the effect in Act III (“I go, I go, look how I go/Swifter than an arrow from a Tartar’s bow”) to give spectators on both sides of the theater a good look at it.
Dr. Samuel Johnson speculated that Shakespeare wrote the character of Bottom to poke fun at a rival theater manager. There is also a tradition that Shakespeare himself played Duke Theseus, in which case the Duke’s comment on the mechanicals’ production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” would have gotten a big laugh:
Marry, if he that writ it, had played Pyramus,
and hanged himself in Thisbe’s garter, it would
have been a fine tragedy.
In any event, we can be sure that Bottom was played by the Globe Theatre’s resident zany, William Kempe — to the character’s detriment, according to Sir Harley Granville Barker in his famous Prefaces to Shakespeare. Writing the part for a comic who was not really an actor, Barker argues, Shakespeare spoiled it by putting in nonsense for Kempe to clown around with — particularly Bottom’s account of his dream. Today’s audiences generally find that speech moving, however, and would agree with the critic who recently wrote that Bottom is the playwright’s “most engaging character before Falstaff” and “a triumphant early example of Shakespeare’s invention of the human.”
Popular in Shakespeare’s day, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s disappeared from the English stage when the Puritans closed the theaters, surviving only in comic sketches cobbled together from the scenes with Bottom
and his cronies for unofficial, if not downright underground, performance.
When it reappeared after-the Restoration it had been turned into an opera, “The Faerie Queen” (1662), with music by Henry Purcell. The lavish first production of Purcell’s opera — complete with such scenic effects as a dance of six monkeys and “A Grand Dance of 24 Chinese” — set the pattern for the next century, when “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was mutilated, rewritten and recycled into light entertainMent that relied on lavish spectacle to the detriment of whatever remained of Shakespeare’s text.
The early decades of the nineteenth century saw yet more “superproductions” that slighted the play for musical and visual effects. Felix Mendelssohn’s overture began to be used around this time, and his other incidental music, first performed in concert in 1844, became a staple of stage productions from then on. But tastes shaped by Romanticism also appreciated the poetry of the play, which came to be regarded as one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces — his tribute to the powers of the imagination.
As a result, the play itself began to make a comeback at the end of the century, still in a context of elaborate visual artifice, beginning with a production staged at Covent Garden in 1844 by an Italian theatrical manager,
Madame Lucia Elizabeth Vestris. This landmark production used more of the text than audiences were accustomed to hearing, while eliminating figures of speech like “big-bellied sails” and “wanton winds” in deference to contemporary prudery. It also inaugurated the practice of having women play Oberon and Puck (who rose out of the stage sitting on a mushroom for his first entrance) to suggest their “ephemeral” nature. Twelve years later, a very popular production staged by Edmund Kean introduced adult fairies, with an eight-year-old Ellen Terry repeating the mushroom stunt as Puck.
A return to something like Shakespeare’s staging came in the 1914 London production conceived by Harley Granville Barker. This actor-turned- producer had great respect for the magic of Shakespeare’s verse, which he obliged his actors to deliver in a “swift, melodious and natural” style that was the antithesis of stentorian stage traditions for reciting Shakespeare. Barker also simplified the staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” representing Theseus’ palace with white columns and using multi-colored draperies to suggest the forest. Grown actors in gold paint and barbaric ornament played the fairies, with Oberon and, for the first time, Puck being played by adult males, and a more restrained Bottom revealed dimensions of character that three centuries of ritualized slapstick — the curse of Will Kempe, according to Barker — had obliterated.
When Barker mounted his production, the play had already been translated three times-to a wholly visual-medium, the silent screen. The first film was a 1909 Vitagraph production shot partly in exteriors that included Flatbush and Prospect Park by Charles Kent, a noted stage actor who had turned to film when he lost his voice. The same year saw a very truncated French version, followed in 1913 by an Italian version without the mechanicals and a German version which seems to have anticipated the tendency of some recent stage productions to treat “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a rather nasty nightmare. That interpretation was elaborated in a 1925 German film that made considerable use of double exposures, anachronisms from the decadent Weimar era (a telephone, a jazz band) and a female Puck so lascivious that the
film was ruled off-limits for children.
It was also a German who directed the first feature-length film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the sound era. The great theater director Max Reinhardt, who had staged it numerous times in Europe and America between 1905 and 1934, directed with William Dieterle an all-star film version for Warner Bros. As much of a revolutionary as Barker, Reinhardt had tried a variety of approaches to the play through the years, from the simplest to the most lavish, culminating in a spectacular production at the Hollywood Bowl with torchbearers descending from the surrounding hills for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Impressed, Jack Warner green-lit the first major production of Shakespeare on film, starring eleven-year-old Mickey Rooney (a holdover from the Bowl) as Puck, James Cagney as Bottom, Anita Louise as Titania, Victory Jory as Oberon, Dick Powell as Lysander, Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Warners stalwart Frank McHugh as Peter Quince and Joe E. Brown as Flute.
A heady mix of Busby Berkley and German Expressionism, Reinhardt’s gauzy, moonstruck vision showed for the first time the power of film to expand and complement the poetry of Shakespeare’s text.
Out-gunned visually by the new medium, modern stage directors have mounted even more lavish productions of the play, like Tyrone Guthrie’s 1937 Old Vic production with Vivien Leigh as Titania, or followed Barker in simplifying — a tendency which culminated in one of the few modern Shakespeare productions that can be called definitive: Peter Brook’s 1970 staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Although its most controversial aspect was the way it sexualized the goings-on in the woods, Brooks’ version was really about theater itself, reduced to its essence: actors in flowing costumes whose bright solid colors stood out against a bare white stage, into which trapezes (for Oberon and Puck) or a hammock in the form of a huge red feather-(for-Bottom and Titania) would occasionally descend; acrobatics and juggling replacing scenic effects; mechanicals dressed like contemporary working men (as they would have been on Shakespeare’s stage) and a “translated” Bottom whose simple make-up — a donkey nose and ears — permitted the audience to see facial expressions that would be invisible under the traditional ass’ head.
(The first actor to play Bottom without the ass’ head was Charles Laughton, in a production directed by Peter Hall at Stratford-on-Avon in 1958, with a cast that included Vanessa Redgrave as Helena and Albert Finney as Lysander. Kevin Kline likes to tell the story of Laughton’s letter to a critic who had panned his performance in the leading role of the previous production of “King Lear” at Stratford: “Don’t bother to come back to Stratford to see me in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ because all I have left to show you is my Bottom.”)
Since Harley Granville Barker’s revolutionary 1914 production, one constant in stagings of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” whether for the theater or on film, has been respect for Shakespeare’s language, even when visual artifice plays a large role. Paradoxically, the return to the text that Barker fostered has actually freed the imaginations of stage and film directors to invent the most varied visual worlds for Shakespeare’s poetry to live and breathe in, most of which turn their back on the stage traditions that for two centuries embalmed the play in painted Athenian vistas and fairy fustian.
There have been five film versions since Reinhardt’s, all very different: an experimental 1959 Czech film done entirely with stop-motion animation; an animated feature done in 1965 with Mr. Magoo playing Puck; Peter Hall’s 1968 film, starring Diana Rigg, Judi Dench, David Warner and Ian Holme as Puck, with child-fairies reminiscent of the Lost Boys in “Peter Pan”; Elijah Moshinsky’s 1981 BBC version, performed in a Cavalier setting; and the film of Joseph Papp’s rollicking 1982 New York stage production, which turns suddenly serious when Bottom catches a glimpse of Titania watching from the shadows during Pyramus’ death scene. The 1966 film of George Ballanchine’s ballet version should also be mentioned, as well as the Beatles’ staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe” done for English television on Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, and such distant cousins like Woody Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” which borrows only the spirit of Shakespeare’s original, along with the fairies and Mendelssohn’s music.
The play seems to welcome such liberties: Kenneth Branagh staged a production in 1990 where mechanicals and aristocrats joined together at the end of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in a show-stopping song-and-dance routine — as the real audience and cast might have done at the end of the play’s premiere if it was indeed performed in a noble house, where • plays often ended with a courtly dance in which the audience participated. In his indispensable history of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in performance, Jay Halio even reports seeing an effective version set in the Old West, with fairies dressed like Indians and “Whoopey-Ti-Yi-Yeas” and “Yippees” discretely inserted into an otherwise impeccable reading of Shakespeare’s lines.
Halio concludes his history with a production he playfully describes as “a new watershed,” Robert Lepage’s 1992 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at London’s Royal National Theatre, where the stage was a large circular pool of water surrounded by a bank of mud, with a single light bulb hanging overhead.
Lepage’s extreme vision of the play as darkly sexual featured a brass bed as its only prop, a female contortionist playing Puck, actors getting progressively mired in the primal mud as the characters’ baser instincts came to the fore and plastic mackintoshes for members of the audience sitting in the first three rows.
According to Halio this highly untraditional production, which made only minimal cuts in Shakespeare’s text, also worked quite well.
The last word on the subject, at least for this century, was said by Harley Granville Barker, who freed actors and directors to keep reinventing Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by leading them back to the text:
“Treat this play how you will,” he wrote in his Prefaces, “there is no whose interpretation must so much depend on that uncharted individual quality we call taste. . . One piece of practical advice may be offered. Let the producer first bring his work to completion upon Shakespeare’s own terms and none other.
If he can perfect the music of the play and the grace of the play’s movement, not so much else will need doing . . . The rest of the adventure, if it must be made, is a man’s own affair.”