Monday, 29 July 2019

Chaos in the Forest - A Midsummers Night Dream

Well, in the space of a couple of days I have gone from one of Shakespeare's earlier plays to one of his more complex, and detailed plays. I guess that is what happens when you have a company that will perform multiple plays over a short space of time. Then again, this is how I believe the Globe in London sets its program, namely with there being three or four plays being staged at once. Mind you, whenever I've been in London I've only had the chance to see one of those plays, particularly since the plays at The Globe get booked up pretty quickly. In a way, I was actually quite fortunate to even get to see The Tragical History of Dr Faust at a moment's notice, even if I ended up getting the times confused and turning up late. Actually, come to think of it, the only plays that I have seen at the Globe (the other being Macbeth) were tragedies, so I am not all that sure of how their comedies turn out. Then again, I do have a collection of plays on DVD that I bought when I was in London, so I can always watch one of them, hoping that one of them does happen to be a comedy.

So, here we have what is basically one of my favourite plays, though one interesting thing about this play is that I remember seeing a Royal Shakespeare Company production of it when they made an appearance in Adelaide. Actually, I believe that is the only time they have actually toured Australia, which is a shame, since if I want to see one of their performances, at least a live performance, I would have to travel to London, or even to Stratford Upon Avon, where they happen to be based. Then again, if I do make the trek one day, maybe I'll be lucky and actually get to see a performance with Patrick Stewart and David Tennant (both of whom I believe are based with the company). However, this post isn't about a play that I saw many years ago, but rather one that I have seen more recently, in fact the previous night, if going by when I am actually writing this post (5 December 2018), as opposed to when I get around to publishing the post.


I could start by giving a rundown of the play, but the problem is that, like many of Shakespeare's other advanced plays, this one is actually pretty complex. In fact we have three sets of characters who I'll refer to as the nobles, the mechanicals, and the fairies. Now, of the nobles we have Theseus (of the minotaur fame) and Hypolita, a former amazon and Theseus' new wife. The mechanicals are basically a group of peasants who have decided to put on a play to celebrate the wedding. I won't go too much into the plot with regards to the faeries, namely because of some peculiarities with this particular production.

However, going back to the nobles, we have Demetrius and Lysander, and Helena and Hermia. Now, Helena loves Demetrius, but Demetrius, who used to love Helena, is now in love with Hermia. However the problem is that Hermia and Lysander love each other, so for a part of the play we have Helena chasing Demetrius who is not returning her affections. To make matters even more complicated, Hermia's father doesn't want her to marry Lysander, but to marry Demetrius, and if she refuses then she has either the choice of execution, or becoming a nun. Since she will have none of this, they run off into the forest. They are then followed by Demetrius and Helena, while the mechanicals decide that they need to practice their play, and also head off into the forest.

City and the Country

One of the interesting things I have seen in these performances is that the roles of Theseus and Hyppolita, and Oberon and Titania are generally played by the same person. This, in a way, creates a reflection on how in Athens it is Theseus and Hypolita who are the rulers, however disappearing into the forest does not mean that they are able to escape authority, since in the forest they are now under the authority of the faeries. One interesting thing is that the play is bookended by scenes set in the city, so the main characters flee the city for the forest, and then return at the end for the plays completion.

 

The forest seems to always be this wild and chaotic place in the plays of Shakespeare. Well, considering As You Like It, the forest there is nowhere near as dangerous as the forest in this particular play. I have already written extensively on the concept of the forest in As You Like It, so I'll refer you to those posts for reference. However, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the forest is a wild, dangerous, and chaotic place. The characters flee Athens believing that the forest will offer them safety, however that cannot be further from the truth. Instead they suddenly all find themselves enchanted, and thus under the control of the faeries.

One of the interesting aspects of this performance was that the faeries were styled as Maori's, which shouldn't be all that surprising considering that this is a New Zealand production. However, it seemed as if they went as far as to translate the play into one of the Maori langauges, or at least the parts where the faeries were communicating with each other. This did create a bit of a problem, namely because we completely missed the plot regarding Titania and the changeling. Could the play survive without that plot? Well, it seems as if it was able to, though in one sense it was an incredibly risky move to make.

However, we were still able to watch how the faeries were able to manipulate and control the characters. For instance, we have the scene where Bottom's head is transformed into that of a donkey, and then we have Titania falling madly in love with the donkey. Then we have Oberon attempting to rectify the discord between the lovers, namely because it hurts to see Helena repeatedly being rebuffed. Well, that didn't turn out all that well considering that both Demetrius and Lysander end up falling in love with Helena.


The catch is that since Helena had been rebuffed by both for so long, when they suddenly fall madly in love with her, she finds it to be quite suspicious - as if they are having her on. In a way it sort of reminded me of games that would be played when I was in primary school. However the term madly is probably appropriate here because this isn't a play about romantic (of chivalric) love, but rather a play where the characters are enchanted. As such the whole scene should be completely ramped up with its insanity.

Dreaming of Love

Well, that is another rather interesting concept because not only is the play bookended by the city, but the suggestion is that all of the events that occurred in the forest occurred as if it were in a dream. Characters fall asleep quite regularly in this play, and when they fall asleep things inevitably change. For instance, Lysander falls asleep being in love with Hermia, and wakes up in love with Helena. In the same way Puck falls asleep with the head of an ass, and awakes with the head of a human.

I'm not inclined to suggest that the city represents civilisation, and the forest represents the wilds of nature, but in a sense they do. Theseus rules the city while the faeries rule nature. However, the city is also representative of the waking world while the forest is representative of the dreams. This is an interesting way to look at things, particularly since dreams tend to be quite chaotic and wild, and at times can trick us into believing that what we are experiencing is real. Yet it seems that in the world of dreams we get dragged along, as if we are passengers in a movie.


However, is it not also the case that in the waking world the same things are true. In many situations we are simply being dragged through life. Sure we have choice, or the illusion of choice, but many aspects of the world are completely out of our control. Yet in another sense, the waking world in many cases is very dull and drab, with us going to work and going home, on packed trains or jammed roads. In a sense the waking world is very dull and dreary, where as the world of the dreams can have an almost magical quality.

Yet is it not also the case that many of us, on the weekend, seek to escape to the wilderness, or at least those of us who aren't forced to work on the weekends. In a way it feels as if the weekend is like that dream world, that world where we aren't under the chains of our employers, aren't forced to work to make sure that there is food on our table or a roof over our head. Yet every Monday we find ourselves back at our desk, once again wandering why the weekend went so fast, and looking at another five days of doing the same thing over and over again. In a way, like the city and the forest, the weekend is the dream, the time we spend out in the forest, while the week is the reality that we must slog through.

Yet one of the darker aspects of the play, and there are certainly some rather dark aspects, is that the faeries not only inhabit the realm of the dreams, but are also masters over it. Sure, they make mistakes, such as enchanting the wrong person, so that we suddenly have the woman who has recently been scorned now being chased all over the forest by two men who are madly in love with her. Yet, the woman who was being pursued now finds herself being left behind.

Let us quickly make mention of this idea of love. These are nobles that we are talking about here, so marriage didn't occur because they were in love, marriages occurred due to agreements made by their parents. We can actually see the conflict here because Hermia and Lysander are in love, but the wish of Hermia's father is that she marry Demetrius. At first, Demetrius was in love with Helena, but changed his mind and decided that he would be happy to marry Hermia. As we know, they decide to run away, namely because they didn't want to follow the rules of the society in which they lived, but to follow their heart's desire. As we have already discussed, their desire to flee from one authority has them find themselves subject to another.


Notice also the setting of the play - Athens. Theseus was a mythical king of Athens, though Plutarch was rather convinced that he actually existed (as did numerous other ancients). In a sense, this story has been set not just in the distant past, but in the mythical past. This goes beyond the plays set in Italy, or even in Rome, but rather in a time that is shrouded in mystery. In a way this dream world is being thrust further back to an ancient time, further distancing the events from the every day life of the audience.

The Ridiculous Play

One thing that I noticed was that sometimes we don't need to worry about the language to be able to enjoy the play. In a sense, much of the play was visual, something that is generally not conveyed through the written word. This is probably why no two Shakespearian plays are necessarily the same. This is somewhat different from the plays of the likes of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. Here the details such as costumes and stage directions are very specific. However, take the language out of the play and sometimes it can be very, very confusing. This was not so much the case with this play, particularly since the players went out of their way to make it appear quite farcical.

Basically we were watching slapstick humour, and as long as we know what is going on, who is who, and who loves who, then the language doesn't matter, This is probably one of the beauties of Shakespeare, and that is that you can enjoy the play even if you struggle with the language. Mind you, it is English, and as I have said in the past, and will say again, plays are meant to be performed, not read, though I notice that getting into a group that will read Shakespeare is still a very popular past time.


Interestingly, there is always that story about how students struggle with the language of Shakespeare, yet even today he is not only still being performed, but the audiences are still flocking to see his plays performed. Of course, we have groups experimenting with the plays, and changing them, but they are still very popular, even in their purest form. In a way, costumes may be adjusted, if only to help us understand what is going on. For instance, in this play Lysander and Hermia were dressed in green, and Demitrius and Helana were dressed in red. As for the mechanicals, they wore hi-vis vests, simply to demonstrate that they are members of the working class.

So, let us finish off with the mechanicals' play - Pirimus and Thisbee. The performance is supposed to be bad, really really bad. Then again, these guys are working class, and in a sense Shakespeare didn't seem to think much of them, particularly since they are the butt of many of his jokes. They are rude, crude, and completely incompetent. In many cases they are only in the plays to provide some comic relief. In fact it is interesting that the fools, or the jesters, are never the ones who are considered to be the comic relief, but the ones who will confront the main character and challenge him. This is not the case with the lower classes.


One thing you will notice though is that during the performance the audience are jeering and making jokes. Remember, this is a private performance for Theseus, his wife, and the guests at the wedding. It actually makes me wander whether this is what Shakespeare would have experienced when he performed for the monarch (particularly King James). Then again, half of the reason is that this play is bad, and the performance is bad, however a part of me feels that this may not have been the case with the Kings Men, since you only landed up there if you were particularly good.

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Chaos in the Forest - A Midsummers Night Dream by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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