When I was at school I had problems with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It wasn’t just the dull way it was taught in my school back in the day. Students nowadays have much livelier texts to read from; many don’t even have to read a whole Shakespeare play any more but can get by with extracts. (Though how deciding half the school population are too stupid to read Shakespeare and thus denying them access to a hugely important element of our culture fits into the brave new widening participation world is beyond me. Still, it keeps the school exam results looking good.)
The real issue for me was the play’s violence. This is a work that is often played as if it’s sweet and light, a bit of a romp, an easy confection. It’s got fairies, hasn’t it? But for me from the very start it was the violence that struck and disturbed me. A play that opens with a father threatening his daughter with death if she doesn’t marry the man of his choice, and that daughter being told that her father should be as a god to her, filled me with horror. The funny thing was that no one else in the classroom, least of all the teacher, seemed to notice. Nor did the sexuality of the play bother them, the hints of bestiality (“lion, bear, or wolf, or bull…she shall pursue it with the soul of love”), of rape (Hippolyta “wooed with my sword”, Demetrius’s veiled threat to Helena who risks “the rich worth of her virginity” by putting herself into his power), and of domestic violence. “The more you beat me I will fawn on you” declares Helena, as forgiving as any battered wife. And I always, always, felt sorry for poor Bottom, who was made such a dreadful fool of though he didn’t seem such a bad sort to me. I always thought it was Theseus who deserved a lot more than he got.
So for many years I didn’t go near the play. I didn’t read it, and I didn’t go to see it performed. I managed to enjoy Mendelssohn but that was as far as I got. Then Gerard persuaded me to go to a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF) (on 1 March). I’d seen their fabulous Much Ado About Nothing and thought I’d give A Midsummer Night’s Dream a chance. The Tobacco Factory is a theatre carved out of a section of the abandoned Imperial Tobacco factory that once dominated Bristol, and SATTF is an unsubsidised theatre company who produce Shakespeare, and you will know all you need to know about them if you read their artistic policy at http://www.sattf.org.uk/index.php?id=9. (Which is a far cry from the brave new widening participation world of teaching Shakespeare in bits.)
That did it for me. SATTF showed me, first of all, what a brilliantly constructed play it is. Then they drew my attention to the wonder of the language, to its bucolic madness, its primrose beds, oxlips, and eglantine, and the love-wounded flower which is the instrument of the human madness. They showed me the mundane world where magic dwells: anarchic, challenging magic that makes the butter fail and old dames fall onto their bums. They evoked the figure of Silvanus, god of the wild woods that encroach with exuberant power on our feeble constructions of reality, and inflict us with such blessed, blessed madness. And then, when they’d pulled out all sorts of spiritual rugs, made men into beasts, scarified young women with lovers’ scorn and tangled briars, destroyed childhood friendships, and made parents the objects of terror for their children, everything was restored. The protagonists were left loving and sleeping safely in their palace, though the screeching owls and howling wolves were still outside.
For that is one aspect of the play’s power and magic. The darkness is always there, the violence that I so feared as a young girl, the suffering, the anarchic forces of Faerie. But in the end, after all the pain and confusion, it is a fundamentally good world. The fairies come to challenge; they also come to bless.
A wonderful production, filled with wonderful things amongst which I recall Jay Villiers’s Theseus and Oberon, Christopher Staines’s Puck, Rebecca Pownall’s towering Helena, Jonathan Nibb’s gloriously absurd Bottom, and above all Felix Hayes’s Wall. If you get the chance, go and see SATTF do anything. As for me, I’m half way through reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and haven’t time to linger in this dream world.
For Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory see http://www.sattf.org.uk
For the Tobacco Factory see http://www.tobaccofactory.com/