One of my favourite plays by Shakespeare has to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I must admit, I am new to this play, having only seen it for the first time at The Globe Theatre in May. But something I love from it is how differently it can be portrayed. The first time I saw it it had a modern setting – it was rude, and naughty, and full of energy. It was young and very comedic. I then watched Russell T Davies television version which was so magical. He picked up on the sci-fi fantasy of this tale of dreams. It was lovely to watch and I think that take gave an interesting effect to the dreaminess of the story. The beautiful, flowery woods was romantic… the faeries looked beautiful and mystical. It was a brilliant way to engage a family into Shakespeare.
The most recent production I have seen at the theatre that I work at is pictured above. It was performed by the wonderful theatre company called Illyria. I found this production wonderful not only because of how well it was done in humour and acting, but it was set in a garden, with woods in the background. Throughout the play the sky was getting darker and darker as it was getting late at night, the audience was literally slumbering outside in a park as we were watching. The fairy lights on the stage lit up, we were watching the performance outside through fairy lights. And then the some of the final lines came out… “That you have but slumbered here/ While these visions did appear”. I felt in that moment that this play is best performed in an outside theatre, especially that of one in a park. It makes it that more dreamy.
I heard in an Oxford University podcast of a lecture that in 1576, Thomas Hill wrote of dreams – “Dreams were looking glasses of the body, placed it may so behold and foreshow matters imminent”. In the play the characters dream of love, or to be more specific, desire, sexual desire. They dream of chaos and confusion and mystery and magic, all of which is symbolised by the setting of the woods. But what does this say of human nature? Hill seems to be talking of dreams capturing the part of ourselves that we cannot see, but is prominent.
In many ways, this puts a darker light upon the comedy. Are we are laughing at the darker aspects of ourselves? At our other side we barely know exists? We the audience have “slumbered” watching the play, we have dreamed the play akin to the characters – our looking glass is the same – even hundreds of years later. Dreams make time have no barrier.
All plays feel like a dream, I feel. This play highlights on the dreamy nature of theatre, but all plays really are visions -“Oh what visions have I seen!”. We do not create the visions but we slumber alongside them, and Shakespeare’s play with this makes me think of how well he really knew what it was to be human. His final protagonist, who many perceive to be a shadow of the writer himself, Prospero, did famously say “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. The whole world is sleeping, how are we to ever know what is real and what is not? It’s something AMND does, wondering if everything about the woods is entirely a dream, or if only parts of the wooded scenes are visions.
But we think this, when the entire play is a dream for ourselves. A looking glass for the audience. It makes me think of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s wonderful play “Life’s A Dream”, a play I adore, where he states-
“What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough; for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams”.
Remembering back to watching this play in the woods feels like a dream. Maybe it was. And I love how Shakespeare can suddenly make what felt like a comedy suddenly feel more darker, and say much more about life that we thought it would do.