…or ‘How to go about making an ass of yourself’
It’s probably fair to say that the main reason A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works is less to do with the quotability of its lines and the insight they offer into the human condition than for its ability to make people laugh. Comedy nonetheless can be very revealing as another way of understanding what makes people tick, and Shakespeare’s comedies – and even comedy in his tragedies and histories – frequently touch on other aspects and truths to build up a wider, fuller picture of what it means to be human, to live, to love and to suffer.
Comedy, in Shakespeare, takes many forms, but most often it plays on the contrasts of class and position, and on the differences between men and women. Questions of identity, gender and sexuality. The source of the humour then is very much in a tradition that extends right through to the present day, and is particularly alive and well and towing the conventional line in the romantic-comedy movie. The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing, for example, tend to suggest – sometimes uncomfortably amidst all the laughter – that there’s only trouble when the traditional roles are overturned, when servants becomes masters and when women attempt to show strength and convictions of their own. Often however a peaceful accommodation can be made.
Getting mixed up with a marital dispute in the land of the fairies, the human questions of identity and traditional roles in relationships are a little more complicated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the humour is accordingly somewhat broader, but there’s method in the madness. The use of magic, spells and fairies in this particular play – not to mention the theatrical magic of dramatic presentation and the use of the imagination – does nonetheless explore some questions that can’t be pinned down quite so easily in Shakespeare’s more realistic, down-to-earth based works. It examines mortals in their other, less corporeal, almost spiritual state. In love, if you like.
Which also means that it also finds humans in their most brain-addled, foolish, belligerent, blind, can’t-see-beyond-the-nose-on-the-face-of-their-beloved stupidity. Which, of course, leads to much confusion over the nature of desires and identity, and to much humour. As the saying goes (proving that the play has its fair share of quotable Shakespeare), “the course of true love never did run smooth” and extending the metaphor of the course as a watery one, it’s pretty rough sailing for all the couples in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.
Set in Athens, Duke Theseus is due to marry the unhappy Hippolyte when he is petitioned by Egeus to give verdict on the disobedience of his daughter Hermia. Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius, but the headstrong girl is determined to marry Lysander. She’s given a choice – marry Demetrius, enter a convent or be put to death. Athenian law is very harsh indeed. The laws of attraction are unfair also to Helena, who has lost the affections of Demetrius since he clapped eyes on Hermia. “Love looks not with the eye, but with the mind” perhaps, but I’m not sure where Helena’s mind is if she thinks she can regain Demetrius’ favour by informing him of Hermia and Lysander’s plan to elope and elude the weight of Athenian law. meeting later in the forest outside the city.
Entering that forest however is to enter a dark place of mystery. The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, are in dispute there, and Oberon has sent Robin Goodfellow ‘Puck’ to play some mischief on his wife with a love potion. There are also a troupe of actors in the woods, ‘The Mechanicals’ who are rehearsing a performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ to put on at the celebrations of the Duke’s marriage to the Queen. As Puck sows confusion over identities, not least with himself, A Midsummer Night’s Dream captures a whole range of conflicting desires, secret imaginings and lusty urges, the casting of spells and weaving of magic that evokes all the mysteries of love and the strange behaviour of mortals who enter into that state. “Nature shows her art”.
Much of the humour in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is fairly broad crowd-pleasing slapstick involving mistaken identities, and not surprisingly that aspect of the work is played-up in an uproarious manner in Dominic Dromgoole’s production recorded here at The Globe in 2013. Two of the Globe’s best comic actors, Pearce Quigley and Fergal McElherron, make the most of Mechanicals Nick Bottom and Peter Quince. They camp it up slightly as theatre darlings, with plenty of comic pauses, visual interjections, nods, winks and raising of the eyebrows to the delight of the audience. Their ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is a shambolic affair, but despite all the hamming, they get across the purpose of the play-within-the-play, and all the issues relating to adopting personas and expressions of identity. As well as looking suitably foolish in the process.
The same indelicate balance is achieved by the Athenian lovers and by strong engaging central performances by John Light and Michelle Terry in the now traditional dual roles of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta. Luke Thompson in particular has the measure of Lysander, playing it with subtle humour. The lines are amusing in their own right, but it helps if you can deliver them not with solemn declamation of the verse but with a mischievous twinkle in the eye and a degree of horny enthusiasm. Helena too is given a sympathetic treatment by Sarah MacRae in her realisation that fervour in the chase and pushing of one’s romantic inclinations upon another isn’t enough but that it requires some judgement of timing in navigating the changing tides of love. The Globe’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has plenty of fervour and good timing, floats along the course of true love on the magic spell that is weaved, but with plenty of down-to-earth humour.
Globe on Screen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer, and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.
The Globe productions are all filmed in High Definition, and some of them have found their way in that format onto Blu-ray discs in the past. More recently, they’ve been released on DVD only, and that’s the case with the 2013 productions of The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The video quality for A Midsummer Night’s Dream looks good however even in Standard Definition NTSC. The image is clear, sharp and colourful, and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. Much will depend on the screen display. Anyone more used to High Definition presentations on larger screens will find that the detail isn’t all there, colours are a little oversaturated, contrasts are strong and blacks are not greatly detailed. On a computer monitor, the macroblocking, grain-shifting and instability of the encoding is also much more evident.
The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, the dialogue never less than clear and perfectly audible. On some Globe on Screen live recordings there can be some problems with booming and equalisation of the sound when there is an emphasis on music and drumming in the production, or when there is quite a bit of action, noise and shouting. That’s never an issue in the relatively more sedate A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Should you have any difficulties following the verse however, optional white subtitles are available in English, French and German. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet provides a synopsis and an essay by Diane Parkiss, who looks at the dark side of fairy lore and how mysticism is treated in Shakespeare’s other works, particularly the references in Hamlet and Macbeth.
The Globe’s 2013 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t the most subtle expression of the play’s mystical exploration of those caught up in the magic spell of love. Dominic Dromgoole’s production plays up the side of love that makes asses of men and women, and that’s a valid angle to take for the live audience at the Globe. Valid, that is, if you can make it genuinely funny without neglecting the finer points of the drama. The cast here fortunately is strong and experienced enough to respond to the themes of the work as well as the needs of the audience, which is what performing Shakespeare is all about.
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