One of the less obvious and, surely, unintended side effects of being involved with A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has been the deleterious effect it has had on my general reading programme. There simply hasn’t been the time lately to get stuck into a good book what with intensive rehearsals, word learning, background research and other distractions to cope with (tough life, isn’t it?) With a period of relative calm from February through to April and a recent holiday in the offing I felt it was high time to rectify the shortfall. However, as there was still some background/spin-off reading I wanted to do, that was where I decided to concentrate my efforts.
First cab off the rank was Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History by Michael Dobson. This proved to be an entertaining and fascinating look at how amateur productions of Shakespeare have developed over the centuries. Starting with the private country house theatricals of the landed gentry, Dobson goes on to investigate the rise of the amateur company as we know it today and also looks at Shakespeare being performed overseas by the colonising members of the diplomatic service and those in the armed forces. Particularly intriguing was the section on Shakespeare in POW camps in World War Two where a popular yet potentially tricky choice was The Merchant of Venice. As might be expected The Dream loomed large in the scheme of things, perhaps most intriguingly in an unlikely production by the inmates of Dartmoor prison – themes of escape and transformation perhaps the draw here. Dobson sees any line between amateur and professional productions as consistently blurred so I wonder what he will make of our present theatrical endeavour. Perhaps there is a new revised edition with an extra chapter just begging to be written.
Next, I turned my attention to Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling chosen, of course, because of the title character. Two children pass the time by playacting scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Dan shows his affinity with Bottom by not only undertaking this character but also playing Puck and all the fairies while his younger sister has to make do with just being Titania. So intense are they in their performance that they inadvertently conjure up the “real” Puck described as “a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes and a grin that ran right across his freckled face” (Lucy Ellinson, please take note). Puck then acts as an MC introducing quasi-historical figures who tell the children tales of what might best be described as Olde Worlde Englande. Well, what a tedious little book this turned out to be. By turns patronising and agonisingly tedious (with the occasional gobbet of casual Kipling racism thrown in for good measure) it was devoid of interest, excitement and even much literary merit. Considering it’s supposed to have been written for children all I can say is they must have made them differently in 1906; I certainly couldn’t see today’s readers enduring it for long. The most interesting bit was the section in which Puck explains that the fairies have all left England as a direct result of Henry VIII’s reformation and the religious intolerance which followed – yes that is as good as it got!
Delving back even further in time I then turned to Lives of the Greeks and Romans by Plutarch. This outlined the life of Theseus, mythical ruler of Athens, cousin of Hercules and, as it turns out, general love rat. While this is hinted at by Shakespeare it seems that he really was a love ’em and leave ’em type of guy. Ariadne, Phaedra and, of course, Hippolyta all fell for his charms and then suffered a degree of disappointment. The reader is left in no doubt though that he was a fair and just ruler and some of this comes across in Shakespeare’s play. Plutarch’s style was a little heavy to say the least and I couldn’t face up to all the other notable figures covered in the book so I actually only read the Theseus section – well I was on holiday!
Three of Theseus’ lines from The Dream provide one of the epigraphs for Margaret Atwood‘s latest, The Heart Goes Last :
Lovers and madmen hath such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends …..and this, as it turned out, was rather apt (I suppose given it’s an epigraph, it would be!) This book was definitely my pick of the bunch. It sees Atwood in futuristic dystopian mode (cf The Handmaid’s Tale and her more recent MaddAdam trilogy) and is centred around a young couple and their move to a community where everyone spends a month in prison -Positron – followed by a month living an ordinary life in a so called ideal community – Consilience. There are, though, sinister forces at work. The central couple share their existence with another pair, their Alternates, with whom they gradually become obsessed and a complicated love quadrangle ensues reminiscent of the Lovers in The Dream. As their lives fragment and spiral out of control the reader is taken on an action packed adventure which mingles satire, sci fi adventure and surreal entertainment. The Dream references add another layer of interest and include an ending where a group of workers get to perform an entertainment, there’s a multiple wedding and everyone is (seemingly) paired off with the right person. This is achieved partly through the use of a new brain procedure whereby the person undergoing the operation falls madly in love with the first thing it sees upon awakening (now where have I heard that before?) As for Shakespeare’s play itself, in Atwood’s future society it has become a soft porn show in Las Vegas called A Midsummer Night’s Scream starring the supposedly alluring Tits Tania – now there’s an angle that the RSC strangely decided to avoid!
If Atwood’s novel doesn’t quite treat the Bard with due reverence then Terry Pratchett‘s Lords and Ladies goes even further. As ever it is set on the Discworld but the references to our own planet and culture loom large. In this one the kingdom of Lancre is about to be invaded by elves and fairies (here, indisputably the baddies) and only the witches can stop them. As Midsummer arrives there is also to be a royal wedding and the Entertainment is to be provided by blacksmith Jason Ogg and the rest of his artisan cronies ( a weaver called Tailor, a tailor called Carpenter, a tinker called Tinker and so forth). They are, of course, comically inept and may even have to resort to the infamous Stick and Bucket dance to see them through. Pratchett’s humour may be an acquired taste but the underpinning Dream references made this great fun to reread.
Love In Idleness by Amanda Harris transposes the play’s action from Ancient Greece to modern day Tuscany where Theo and Polly Noble are renting a villa for themselves and assorted singleton friends as well as the three children Tania, Bron and Robin. All the Dream tropes are present and correct – confused lovers, a dark wood in which folk get lost, a “magic” potion, fairies (sort of). The one aspect missing is the Mechanicals; latecomer to the villa Guy Weaver, a celebrity TV gardener with a braying laugh and tufts of hair on his ears, seems to be very much an afterthought and only there to service what I found a somewhat ludicrous (and certainly unprepared for) denouement. I suppose this book would fall into the category of “chick lit” – a term I don’t particularly care for. That said it’s not a book I’d have picked up or persevered with if not for the Dream connections; fortunately it was a quick read.
There was one final text on my list, an early play by Henrik Ibsen called Sancthansnatten (translates as St John’s Eve), which apparently owes a huge debt to Shakespeare’s Dream. However, investigation revealed that Ibsen himself excluded it from his collected works and that no translation into English even exists. In the interests of dedication I suppose I could have tried learning Norwegian but, with just over a month to go before the performances I think it’s about time I got back to the set text. Now how does it go again? “When my cue comes, call me and I will answer..…..”