MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM must be one of the most performed plays of all time. It is also the most interpreted. I myself have tackled this play twice and was in a cut down version when I was 8. ( the subject of a radio piece broadcast I did on RTE in 2003 )
So many interpretations and experiments have been performed on this play and therefore anything I might say subsequently might have the riposte, ‘oh, I saw that done in xxxx’s production in 1993!’ But I am going to plough ahead anyway because it is the manner in which this was discovered that was interesting, as much as the discovery itself. In my extremely brave and adventurous Chekhov and Shakespeare class this week, we explored general atmosphere with the empty rectangle which you fill with a given atmosphere from your imagination. We are working with Midsummer Night’s Dream
Chekhov and General Atmosphere.
For those not in the know about atmosphere, Chekhov believed that atmosphere was a palpable thing, the oxygen of performance. All characters operated within this atmosphere, accommodating it in some way, or absorbing it. He also believed that atmosphere was something that existed whether an individual was there or not, that it was not something that we brought into a space, but something that was there and we walked into it. Much of this kind of idea has been supported by science. All you have to do is go into a church or a hospital or a library to feel the weight of this truth.
This was demonstrated to great effect last night when we moved from our working room into a smaller kitchen/ utility room to illustrate this point and sense the difference in atmosphere in each place . As we came back into our working room, I watched the faces of people as they came back into our room, amazed at the difference. To cap it all, as if on cue, a man on his way to another meeting arrived to try and cross the room ,and the feeling of him facing our resistance was palpable. It was as if he hit a wall of atmosphere. It was incredible yet an ordinary everyday occurence. One of those palpable invisible things made visible once you are aware of it.
As we worked on the Dream , we explored the world of Athens from words and pictures created by the actors. We filled the rectangular space with an atmosphere of COLDNESS and CONTROL . As the actors explored these thoroughly with their bodies and feelings, and began using pieces of text, I got one of the actors to take in a new atmosphere of her own, one of the colour RED and she was to say to each person, ‘I love Lysander!’ As she responded to each of the others in turn, she came upon someone who she felt put up more resistance , [ an older man who could have been Theseus] and became joyous loud and defiant . It felt like she was real threat to the atmosphere and everyone responded. It was most exciting, and filled the room with something fundamental about the play. This is what is so wonderful about the Chekhov work, that it brings from the abstract something tangible, actable and real.
The role of Theseus.
It made me realise something about Theseus , something I had struggled with before. Theseus is a difficult part because he does not really have enough stage time to take an emotional journey and yet he is important enough to make one. He and Hippolyta are the first characters we see and so somehow they need to be key. In the first scene he is established as the ruler and lawgiver. He has just defeated an army of women and is about to marry their leader, so the two of them set up the theme of the challenge of heterosexual relationships which is then played out through nearly all the major characters one way or another. It has often been supposed and there have been many productions exploring this , that Oberon and Theseus are cross cast with Titania and Hippolyta, thereby giving the Theseus/Oberon character a running emotional/poetical journey through another character ( note how this appears to be the case with Cordelia and the Fool in Lear too.), but what if we are to consider Theseus alone?
It occurred to me through our atmosphere exercise, that the threat of Lysander and Hermia’s love to the very essence and atmosphere of what Athens represents is much more serious than it appears. The unruly sway of the emotions against order and control is what provokes the wrath of the state against them, to the extent where Hermia’s father calls for her execution and they have to run away into uncertainty and danger. Theseus as the ruler should be the one most threatened by Hermia’s defiance , but also moved by it, as he changes her prospective punishment from execution to banishment to a nunnery. When they emerge from the forest towards the end of the play and Egeus pleads for his punishment , Theseus has a change of heart, and all ends happily. But through this exercise I discovered that perhaps this change of heart is set in motion from the moment that Hermia defies him in Act one and she sets this change in motion to take him from a cold rational man to a warmer human being. In the production I did in 2008 , it was Hippolyta who caused his repentance by kneeling silently before him after Egeus had demanded the full punishment, a nice idea I had not seen before which gave some closure to her own defiance. The Theseus act 5 speech ‘ I never may believe these antique fables….’ where he challenges the story of the lovers in conversation with Hippolyta suddenly makes sense in this context, with this journey.
As I watched my class going off into the sunny evening discussing how energised they were feeling, and the words imagination and discovery were heard repeated again , I felt so empowered by their energy and the power of our work.
If that sounds ‘blissy’, I’m not apologising!
Max, I haver done some Shakespeare and Chekhov work and always found it powerful. Do you teach in the US at all? The VASTA conference is in London this year, might you be around for that? I’d love to engage with you and talk further.
Hi Lester. Right now I teach only freelance courses here in Ireland.Though I have worked at colleges in the States, as I do here. I would love to run a course in the states, but it takes organising! If you know any Shakepeare courses there, maybe I could contact them? Best wishes Max