A dream Dream: Theatre for A New Audience’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps Shakespeare’s most perennially evergreen play, in that its magic, beauty, strangeness and wonder never fades, but grows richer and deeper and more strange with every consecutive production. While it was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school, it is still the one play of Shakespeare’s that I love wholeheartedly and completely, and this production not only proves why, but is perhaps the most mercurial, effervescent, and beguiling Dream I have seen.
This production, first staged at New York’s Theatre for A New Audience in 2014, is directed by Julie Taymor, perhaps most well known for The Lion King musical as much as for the circumstances surrounding her Spider-Man musical, Turn Off The Dark. Known for her wild inventiveness, kaleidoscopic approach to style and design, and her reluctance to conform to expectations, this Dream lives up to its name and positively flies. Towards the end of the production’s season, Taymor and her collaborators were given money through Ealing Studios to film the production and create a cinematic Dream which brought its stage incarnation to even more beguiling life. Enlisting the help of Rodrigo Prieto (who previously shot Taymor’s film Frida), Taymor filmed four performances from four angles each, then spent the intervening days filming pick-up shots – close-ups, cutaways, shots you wouldn’t necessarily be able to achieve with an audience during a performance. Working with some eighty hours of footage, Taymor and editor Barbara Tulliver spent several months creating this cinematic Dream, drawing us further into the world of fairies, dark magic, shadows, and desire.

Jutting into the audience, the stage seeks to bring us, the audience, into the world of the play as much as it can, and on Es Devlin’s set – what looks at first like a black floor and wall – proves to be as versatile as the dream-like logic of our sleep-fuelled imaginations. Panels slide open in the floor and wall, elements and actors fly upwards through the space, and actors appear seemingly from nowhere to great (and magical) effect. When the play – the film – starts, we see a white bed centre-stage. A small figure in grey trousers and white shirt and braces appears, yawns, curls on the bed asleep… and it rises. Up up up in the middle of the stage, held aloft by a tangle of thorny branches. Workers (the Mechanicals, as we later discover) enter, begin to prepare the stage, and proceed to cut the branches. Hooks are attached to the edges of the bed sheets and on a given signal, the sheets are pulled out from the bed to create a giant white canopy, and the Dream begins.
The sheets are Taymor’s ideograph in this Dream, just as The Lion King’s ideograph was the circle, and her ideograph in Titus was a hand. Taymor uses the ideograph across all her work to unify the disparate creative and visual elements in each separate production. Simply put, the ideograph is the two or three most essential brushstrokes needed to express the essence of an idea. Its clearest instance is in The Lion King, where the device of the circle can be observed throughout the work in the costumes, sets, music, lighting, choreography and puppetry, as well as playing out in the musical’s narrative structure. You can see it in the musical’s opening number, ‘The Circle of Life,’ and again in the final reprise as the story climaxes, what is essentially a refashioning of the opening scene; the story itself has come full circle. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taymor uses the idea of the bedsheet to signal dreaming and sleep, but also what comes from dreaming – the ideas, the dreams, the nightmares, the manifestations of our subconscious – and plays with it to marvelous effect. When coupled with Sven Ortel’s mesmerising projections, the set seems to expand to fill more than just the theatre, and enters our heads (and cinemas) to enhance, tantalize, and intoxicate with almost pure-magic.
Coupled with Constance Hoffman’s costumes – themselves firmly rooted in Taymor’s trademark predilection for kaleidoscopic anachronism – this Dream gives us Mechanicals in denim, plaid, and various shades of grey; the lovers in a vaguely 1950s style with long coats and dresses harking back to earlier times; Elizabethan approximations for the Athenian court; and a wondrous concoction of light, shade, and iridescence for the fairies, Titania and Oberon in particular. In many ways, Hoffman’s costumes – and the production in general – are refractions of Taymor’s work to date: there are echoes of the court from The Tempest, her pattern-based work in The Magic Flute, the commedia del’arte roots of The Green Bird, an animatronic donkey’s head for Bottom, and a glorious low-fi parody of Mufasa from The Lion King.
One of the best things about this production is that the sublime imagination are slammed right up alongside the darkness and scariness that is so often overlooked in Shakespeare’s text, so often missing in other productions of the Dream. Taymor embraces the confusion and the horror, the disorientating sense of the forest that continually changes upon us like in a dream, and uses projections on cloth to create a series of ever-changing landscapes. Taymor also makes use of an ensemble of younger actors whom she dubs ‘Rude Elementals’ to stand in for the physicality of the forest, the spirits, Titania’s fairie attendants, animals, and a very real sense of danger and menace. It’s wonderfully simple, yet also incredibly effective, and is only heightened by Elliot Goldenthal’s music, every bit as ethereal and kaleidoscopic as Taymor’s theatrical vision.
While this film of Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream might not be getting a wide release (yet), I hope it gains an eventual release on home media or via digital download, as it deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible – students, children, theatre-nerds, and purists alike. As a first introduction to the play, and the world of theatre, it’s as dark (literally and in implication) as it is magical and light-infused; as a re-acquaintance with an old friend, it’s pretty close to perfection as I could hope for, and it reminds me just why I love the play, why I love a robust Shakespeare production – why I love theatre – in the first place.

A Dream indeed.

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