Is A Midsummer Night’s Dream the most frequently produced Shakespeare play of recent times? It seems like it to me. It is a pleasant romp and even more pleasant when enjoyed in an outdoor theatre such as Edmonton’s tremendous Heritage Amphitheatre. Too often I find, however, that companies take the safe, easy route with A Midsummer Night’s Dream: playing Bottom and the Mechanicals as over-the-top Disney bumpkins; making Bottom the extreme focus of the play; just strolling through pleasant sets reciting pleasant lines — in short, taking no risks.
The no risk course was not chosen by director Marianne Copithorne and The Freewill Shakespeare Company for the latest Edmonton Midsummer Night’s Dream. Risks are taken left and right, front and centre, and most of the throws come up sevens or elevens. I can’t help but think that Kevin Corey’s repeated mutterings as Puck of “Oh crap!” are a reference to the risks taken in this production.
The first gamble taken is with the very first page of the usual printed text, the Dramatis Personae: Freewill has slipped in a new character, Fern(Annette Loiselle), Nick Bottom’s wife. She storms in from the back of the amphitheatre yelling for her husband (John Ullyatt), who stands on the stage, virtually invisible in the storm of her entrance. Her brief conversation with her husband before Shakespeare’s opening conversation between Theseus(John Kirkpatrick) and Hippolyta(Belinda Cornish) adds a new layer of parallel to the play, bringing the theme of marriage into the Rude Mechanicals’ sub-plot, the only level of the play from which Shakespeare absented it. A risk taken by Freewill — write a new scene and a new character for the Bard. I had my doubts as the play started, but I think the gamble pays off. The theme is made more obvious for a contemporary audience and the mechanicals are given a rounded backstory, elevating them above the cardboard bumpkins they too often can be.
But what becomes of Fern Bottom is even more ingenious. Puck’s first scene, written as a dialogue with an unnamed fairy, begins with Fern being questioned by Puck. The lines are redistributed between Puck and Fern and as the scene progresses, Fern is transformed by Puck into a fairy. Fern-as-fairy remains a part of the Fairy entourage until near the end of the play. Here we see a metamorphosis parallel to that of Bottom. Fern’s transformation also brings Bottom and Fern into close parallel with the separated lovers of the fairy court, the Athenian court, and the four young Athenians. To be clear, very little of what Shakespeare wrote is changed by Fern’s insertion. But the nuptial theme is given a different emphasis and colour. Another rich pay-off for a risk taken.
Perhaps the most unexpected change Freewill has made is to replace the Indian slave boy over which Titania and Oberon quarrel with a small dog(Atom Cornish Meer). Yes, a shih tzu takes the place of the silent brown child usually placed on stage beside Titania. My first thought was “Is this just a sanitization of the paedophilic slavery elements of the text?” Then I thought “Well, is it bad to sanitize those elements?” And then I thought “By making the quarrel about the dog, great events really do spring from trivial things, the play is more family friendly, the play is more accessible to a modern audience in a country where — I’m told — more families have dogs than have children, and, those in the audience having any familiarity with the play will be made only more aware of the paedophilic slavery that has been replaced by the cute puppy.”
Furthermore, Helena’s “Spaniel” speech gains resonance from the presence of a dog at the noble level, as does the Man in the Moon character in the Mechanical’s play. The puppy Theseus is constantly begging to hold becomes an image tying together all levels of the play’s society.
Yet another risk pays off.
The Freewill production bucks tradition in a few other ways. For example, Kevin Corey’s Puck is not the spry, acrobatic, possibly androgenous sparkling figure we often see in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rather, he is a bearded, noticeably round figured Bacchus with grey hair poking out of his woodland headdress. This Puck is earthy and every bit a match for his Lord, Oberon. Yes, for example, he errs in carrying out Oberon’s plan, but Puck has no qualms about pointing out that Oberon’s instructions are the root of the error, and puck suffers no repercussions for point that out. A little detail I couldn’t help noticing was that Pucks administration of the potion to Lysander’s (Sheldon Elter) eyes was performed remarkably like Puck were gouging out Lysander’s eyes. Certainly a reference to Freewill’s companion production this year, King Lear. I look forward to the blinding of Gloucester with unseemly glee.
Modern dress is certainly no longer unconventional, but Freewill’s costumes, designed by Narda McCarroll are certainly worth mentioning. One might describe them as “Central Twentieth Century”. I had a sort of Tortilla-Flat-Guys-And-Dolls-Rat-Pack feeling as the characters strode, ran, danced, wrestled and stumbled across the stage, but always I thought “Summer!” Bottom and the Mechanicals are almost zoot-suited, on the verge of singing “Luck be a Lady Tonight!” Theseus’ court is an elegent summer evening cocktail party with the beautiful people. And Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius are Steinbeckian everywoman and -man heros in the hills above Monterey. And always the summer sun is shining out of their richly coloured clothes.
In a nutshell: Confident and relaxed all around.
Often it is Hermia and Helena and their suitors who are the focus of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Freewill, however, have somehow struck a balance. The Athenian Court does not feel tacked on, as it sometimes can. The Rude Mechanicals are not an interruption of the action of the young Athenians in their comedy of errors. And the young Athenians are engaging individuals themselves. All the separate streams of action drive forward together, commenting on each other in a way I can’t remember ever experiencing in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The young Athenians, Hermia (Bobbi Goddard), her lover Lysander (Sheldon Elter), Helena (Kristi Hansen) and Hermia’s suitor Demetrius (Jesse Gervais) come across at times as more rustic than the rustic mechanicals. In their performances, these four seem to me to have drawn from the deep roots of Shakespeare’s comedy, from Plautus and the Roman stage. This is not negative criticism. Although the four very much reflect ancient types the actors inject charming personality and a few noticeably modern mannerisms — I remember particularly Bobbi Goddard’s (Hermia) aggressive body- and facial language directed at Helena (Kristi Hansen). Where does that come from? Is it a Jersey thing? I’m not up on pop culture — I recognize a reference, but I seldom know to what it refers. And Lysander and Demetrius’ arm wrestling match was wonderful!
Too often I’ve found that I have trouble distinguishing Hermia from Helena, Lysander from Demetrius. This afternoon I had no such trouble. Helena the gentle (before she gets riled up) but strong bean-pole. Hermia the steaming fire-plug. Lysander the honest stalwart. Demetrius the slightly braggart fop. And all four actors physically distinct enough to state the differences and talented enough to drive home both the failings and the lovableness of their characters.
It was likely a risk casting John Ullyatt as Nick Bottom. Ullyatt is such a powerful and talented actor, singer and dancer that his presence on the stage in a perhaps minor roll can be a recipe for the upstaging of the lead characters — I seem to remember exactly that happening in Beauty and the Beast at the Citadel a number of years ago. But Ullyatt, while brilliant as ever, vanishes into the crowd when not the focus, and every one of the mechanicals, so often cyphers, shines as an individual light. And Ullyatt’s performance as Bottom performing Pyramus is brilliant, right down to his hyperextended death scene and rigor mortis, a perfect compliment to Luc Tellier’s voice-breaking turn as Flute performing Thisbe.
As brilliant as Ullyatt’s performance was, for me the glue that held the Freewill Midsummer Night’s Dream together is the dignified, understated and beautifully varied performances of John Kirkpatrick and Belinda Cornish as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. Their playful jousting over the dog, both in the Athenian court and in the fairy realm, comes across as nothing other than true. Oberon’s frustration with Puck is real, but just a subtle twitch in the background as Puck speaks. Titania’s magical infatuation with ass-headed Bottom is ridiculous of course, but Cornish doesn’t just make us believe her performance, she makes us believe Titania’s love.
The Freewill Shakespeare Company’s remarkably balanced, winningly risk-taking and stunningly moving production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues until July 21, 2013.