During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared in our 2015 Fall Season. Kate Powers is a director who has worked with the ASC multiple times; her most recent project was directing Twelfth Night at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. This article first appeared in the 2015 Summer-Fall edition of the Playhouse Insider.
Delightfully Ridiculous: Recovering the Joy in Midsummer
by Kate Powers
When Artistic Director Jim Warren first invited me to return to the ASC to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 2011-2012 Almost Blasphemy Tour, my heart broke just a little because I love Love LOVE working at the ASC, but I was not especially keen to direct this particular play.
Midsummer is notoriously easy to stage badly; actors and directors frequently get sucked into a misapprehension that if they just put all those rhyming couplets to work, it will be funny. Midsummer is nearly all in rhymed couplets, which means two successive lines of verse where the final words rhyme with one another.
It looks like this. Better yet, read this aloud to yourself so you can hear it:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. (1.2)
The King doth keep his revels here tonight;
Take heed the Queen come not within his sight; (2.1)
In fact, if the actors do hit all those rhymes as hard as they can, they fairly quickly stop making any sense, in part because they very often also fall into one steady rhythm once they set their sails toward all those rhymes. The actors start playing the gist of the speech, rather than fighting for what they want, line by line, word by specific word. Then they have to create a lot of stage business to cover the fact that they don’t completely understand what they are saying, and before anyone realizes it (indeed, no one may ever realize it), the audience is laughing in spite of Shakespeare rather than with Shakespeare. Directors also often decide that the way to create fairy magic is to use a lot of glitter instead of using the language that Shakespeare gives to the Fairies themselves.
I’ve seen many mediocre productions of the play where the actors bang mercilessly on the rhyme, slaves (not collaborators) to the iamb; where Titania and Oberon declaim rather than act; where Puck is just odd without paying attention to the clues in the text. John Barton, director and brains behind the BBC Channel 4 Playing Shakespeare series, said, “Blank verse is probably the very centre of the Elizabethan tradition and perhaps the most important thing in Shakespeare that an actor . . . needs to get help from.” As I dove headlong into my preparation and research, I discovered that there were certain speeches or moments in the play that I couldn’t recall ever seeing staged to my satisfaction. These moments of disappointment became the kernel of my approach to directing the play. I was determined to revivify these moments, to make them active, to make them cohere and, yes, jump.
As I worked with the actors playing Titania and Oberon to eschew magical, breathy, glitter-infused Liv Tyler / Middle Earth declamation in favor of using their heightened language as well as their full voices to passionately pursue what they want from one another, to fight like hell for what they want, as I collaborated with the actors playing the four lovers to discover how each character uses the language differently to achieve their desires, as we all dove into the world of the play, I discovered that I am not anything like bored with this nearly perfect play. On the contrary, the reason we keep doing it is because it is so good. I was blaming the faults of myriad productions on the play itself. My rehearsal process at the ASC, while seeking to recover the joy for the audiences around the country, helped me to recover the joy, too.
Part of the director’s task is to ask what the play is about, to ask how each scene illuminates that ‘about’ and to collaborate with the actors to mine the text for meaning. Directing is discovering the staging that embodies that textual understanding. Director Richard Eyre writes, “Meaning above all.”
When she first encounters Oberon, Titania has a 32-line speech that teems with adjectives and classical references; she berates Oberon for all the ways in which the natural course of human and animal life as well as the seasons have been disrupted because she blames him for the disturbances. It is not a glittery, breathy weather report; it is not just pretty speech. It is a scathing indictment of the tension between them:
… The spring, the summer
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension. (2.1)
Titania is angry with her husband. They are having a fight. This is not time to breathily declaim and bat her beglittered lashes. She needs to rally all the points that will help her win the argument and cause him to amend his ways. And while she doesn’t win, per se, she angers Oberon further as they argue. It is out of this fight, and her refusal to give him something he wants, that his plan to “torment thee for thy injury” grows. Titania and Oberon’s lovers’ quarrel mirrors and refracts the passions, misunderstandings, hurt, anger, and jealousy that we see in the four young Athenian lovers, that we glimpse in Theseus and Hippolyta, and that Bottom, Peter Quince, and their company inadvertently lampoon in their play. If we miss the fight, we might miss the resonance as well as the motor of the action. And if the actor declaims prettily rather than using these words to fight for what she needs, then we will certainly miss the fight.
Harley Granville Barker, a director, Shakespeare scholar, and clever redhead, wrote, “Let us humbly own how hard it is not to write nonsense about art.” He wrote this in his preface to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a kind of nonsense that becomes art. In no particular order, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is love, sex, wooing, (spoiler alert!) wedding, upsetting one’s parents, taking the occasional woman by storm (or at least by conquest), magic, moonlight, misunderstanding, transformation, and all the domains that there adjacent lie.
It is easy to get cynical about producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream or A Christmas Carol, but we don’t just produce them because they make for good box office. Unpack that cashbox a minute: people buy tickets to these plays because they love them. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is gateway Shakespeare: if people have a ‘helpless laughter, tears of joy streaming down their face’ experience with this play, they’ll come back to see more challenging pieces.
We love this play, we produce this play, we come see this play because of the rich and multi-faceted ways in which it shows us how ridiculous we are and how essential love is. Through the four social strata of the play (aristocracy, gentry, laborers, and immortals), we discover a sense of wonder, a sense of play, the fragile relationship between order and chaos, the danger inherent in passions suppressed or denied. Through the very structure of his language – from rhymed couplets to blank verse to intense shared verse lines and back again — Shakespeare shows us relationships fraying and fracturing, recovering and healing.
Many of us have made impulsively bad decisions in pursuit of love; we can probably all remember foolishness once upon a summer night. Helena’s fairly clear-eyed, for instance, about the rose-colored glasses she wears for Demetrius:
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transform to form and dignity, (1.1)
but Helena wants Demetrius back so intensely that she is willing to risk her best friend’s life on one last chance at love. Titania loves Oberon, but she’s not about to give him that changeling boy; petulant Oberon is quite prepared to force her hand by whatever magical means necessary.
Dreams can be wonderful stuff, but they often careen out of control. Moonlight can be romantic, but it casts shadows. Both can skew our perceptions in alarming ways, firing our imaginations to suspect the worst, the sexiest, the cruelest, the most frightening. The line between a dream and a nightmare can be thin and full of fissures. Is it a nightmare because it ends badly or wakes you with a start? Does it remain a dream because it has a happy ending? When or how does it cross over from one to the other? A happily moonlit playground and a dark, scary forest can be bordered by the same trees.
Dreams and nightmares are both difficult to recall in sharp detail upon waking, drifting ephemerally away as one struggles to remember. Like snowflakes and productions of Midsummer, no two are quite alike. The four Athenian lovers and Titania come to a new understanding through their experiences in the forest; they find their way to a new or restored love, even as they strive to recall the details. Bottom seems happily unaware of his transformation, but his company’s performance of Pyramus & Thisbe casts into relief all of the heated emotions of the forest journey. For all of the strife, upset and discord, no one has died; no one grieves. The “story of the night told over /… grows to something of great constancy.” (5.1)
The churlish Samuel Pepys saw a production of this play in 1662, and observed in his diary: “To the King’s Theatre where we saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” The play is ridiculous, but we hope it is delightfully so, and filled with the rich complexity, wonder and joy of new love discovered and old love savored.