A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare
The Royal Shakespeare Company
New York, April 1996
We'd thought we were about through being surprised at a what a wonderful play A Midsummer Night's Dream is, and we certainly thought we were through being surprised by a new take on it -- the sort of new idea about the play that yields a whole different reading of the text. Having had the domination/disease part of it unfolded by that Oxford-Cambridge production back in the seventies, and after all the others -- the natural world/artificial world business in the BBC production, for instance, or the junkheap/back garden/subconscious darkside in the Stratford one -- we didn't figure there could possibly be any new readings on the play that wouldn't be the sort of superficial tricks that bad directors like, like staging it in Civil War dress or putting it on Mars. But we were wrong.
This one was about the fact that it's a dream. It was by a long margin the most dreamlike Dream we've ever seen. All productions of it, to some extent, have to acknowledge all the dream metaphors and references in the play, but this one made them into a driving, central force --- and did it in ways that weren't cliches at all. The stuff in it that was dreamlike wasn't cliche dreamlike, it was authentically dreamlike: the images were out of some particular person's dreams, and had that kind of ring of truth. They centered around doors, colors (saturated, amazing colors, colors that stay in your mind like hallucinations for days afterward. Fauvist lighting, sort of). And there were umbrellas, too.
The play begins in a featureless room, a big room, with three walls maybe 20 feet high and a substantial door smack in the middle of the back wall. Blonde wood floor, nothing at all on the side or back walls. The first scene (Theseus, Hyppolita, the Athenians) takes place in this room. There's a swing suspended from the flies in the middle of the room, and for most of the scene Hyppolyta is swinging back and forth while Theseus explains all that stuff about how although he defeated her in battle it's all nice now. She's not having any.
The scene itself is full of simple, nearly primary colors in the costumes: Hyppolita in a red dress, Theseus in gold, the Athenians in simple tunics and dresses in various Crayola colors -- purple, green, orange, blue. At the end of the scene there's a blackout. When Hyppolita and Theseus come back on, divested of their cloaks, they've now become Oberon and Titania. It was a very obvious doubling (I've seen the roles doubled before, but I don't remember such an obvious point made of it: not only did they retain the same basic costumes, there were other ways -- a silver streak in Theseus/Oberon's hair, for instance -- of reminding anyone who might miss it that they were the same actors. What I hadn't seen before was that Philostrate and Puck were also doubled; and again, obviously, though in this case only by the costume color (yellow) and the relationship of being Oberon/Theseus's servant.
But none of this was as important (though it was certainly part of the dream -- or even dream-within-a-dream -- structure of the play) as the set, lighting and overall shape of the production. And this is going to be hard to describe.
The first awareness that something visually spectacular was in store was when the rude mechanicals came out: the room had disappeared (we found out later it had simply been pulled up into the flies) and the background became a sort of swirling green and blue paisley sort of thing, and a door in a very solid frame -- but just that, a freestanding door -- appeared at the front left of the stage. Turns out all the mechanicals came on and off through this door -- that is, they just walked up to the door and came through it to come "on." The door became an important device for slapstick entries and exits, though it was freestanding.
But what was more amazing was when we got the first scene with the Athenians. The back of the stage, a bit behind where the back wall of the room had been, was most of the time simply a featureless space, essentially a scrim lighted so as to not be there at all. But whenever necessary, four (or two, or one) doors simply appeared. They were solid, conventional interior doors that could be slammed. When characters entered through them, often they we lit from behind, so that the character was silhouetted against the light, and cast shadows forward toward us into the room. The doors were like a really weird hallucination -- a detail out of a Magritte painting. They were used in a whole range of ways -- for slapstick entries and exits, for striking, dramatic entrances, as devices in the chases through the Forest of Arden.
There were two other doors as well. One was the one toward the front left that I already mentioned; the other was the one which had been the back door in the featureless room the play started in. Both could be lowered down so that the doorframe disappeared and the top of it became part of the floor. When needed, these doors simply rose out of the floor. At one point, when the Athenians were racing about the stage, Oberon and Puck simply sat on the appropriate squares on the floor and were raised up with the top of the doors, to sit and watch the mortal fools racing about. At another point, just before the long last scene where the rude mechanicals' play is performed, the walls came down from the flies and the back door rose up from the floor and they sort of snicked back together. Technically amazing, but much more important, it was dramatically perfect because the weird, surrealistic doors somehow got merged with the practical reality of the everyday room.
There were other devices that contributed to this weird dreamlike effect, too.
At various points there were lights -- yellowish, incandescent looking lights in traditional black metal frames of various kinds, like the light on top of our lamppost -- descending from the flies, some of them sort of dancing about like fireflies. They'd kind of fill the whole space. The first time we saw them was the scene where Puck and the other fairy, from Titania's retinue, appear to do the exposition: they were hanging from umbrellas about ten feet off the ground, and the lights sort of descended around them. The umbrellas that Puck and whosis hang from on entrance.
Maybe the single weirdest image, though, is the wonderful red inverted umbrella, ten feet across and filled with scarlet -- verging on maroon -- cushions, that descends from the flies to become Titania's bower. It came down the first time filled with red light, and just as the point of it touched the stage it tilted slightly forward so that the front edge rested on the stage. It went up and down three or four times -- most notably when Titania and Bottom as the ass rode up in it for their tryst (that was the end of the first act) and when Bottom is left there to sleep it off). A good deal of the time it's just hanging there, about fifteen feet off the floor.
Rivalling that, I guess, were what I guess we could call the cocoons. When Puck puts the four Athenians to sleep, in each case he puts down a piece of white cloth where each is to lie. When they are all asleep, and the clarifying herb is put in Lysander's eyes, Puck attaches each cloth to a cord which magically descends among the lights. The four Athenians are slowly raised up in the cocoonlike packages to hang a dozen feet above the stage, among the lights, during the whole next scene while the Bottom / Titania / Oberon stuff is cleared up. At one point they and the lights and Titania's umbrella are all up there in this sort of surreal suspension -- again, you could hardly help thinking of Magritte. As Theseus and Hyppolita decide in the morning to go out hunting, the Athenians slowly descend to the stage where they are awakened. An amazing sort of metaphor for the sort of transformative sleep they'd been through.
And then, most of all, there were the incredible, supersaturated colors, the way the stage was drenched with red light, for instance (not bloodlike: scarlet, Crayola red, which lay in the corners of the stage like paint, and made the red cushions in Titania's umbrella glow with a red like nothing I've ever seen before). And when the back doors were opened, the way various colored lights spilled into the room. Or the fact that much of the time there were just barely visible follow spots on Oberon and Puck, so that they had a sort of hallucinatory glow about them.
And there were other great things: the company managed extremely well the business of focussing your gaze where they wanted it to be, and there were all sorts of extremely tightly choreographed moves (not only the Athenians, but Puck, flinging his body back and forth across the stage); lots of good tight physical comedy.
If I thought there could have sometimes been clearer & more defined relationships between characters' speeches, between the ways in which characters responded to each other, I don't think that it was a matter of accident: it was a choice. The play was designed to be stylized, perhaps even a bit operatic -- to play the Shakespeare music. I don't remember ever hearing the rhymes in the play so clearly; not that they rang them like gongs, but it was clear almost all the time that the script rhymed. They never ignored one, I don't think. What this meant was that it was a play of colors and patterns and dream images rather than of characters, and although I thought at intermission that that might have been a mistake, by the end I was convinced that it was exactly the right choice. These characters were all figures in the fierce vexation of a dream rather than real people, and that was okay.
Images from this production are going to stay with me at least as long and as vividly as the tubular bells from the Oxford/Cambridge production, the spray-painted black and sparkly junk from the Stratford back garden production, or the shallow pools of water from the BBC TV production. Maybe longer, and maybe more vividly. I don't think I'm ever going to be able to think of the script without this take on it being part of my model of what it's about.
Tickets cost $50 US apiece. It was worth it.