by Lynn on July 29, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Red face of furyAt the Masonic Music Hall, 15 Church St., Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Sellars
Set and installation by Abigail DeVille
Lighting by James F. Ingalls
Sound by Tarek Ortiz

Starring: Sarah Afful
Dion Johnstone
Trish Lindström
Mike Nadajewski

A rethinking of Shakespeare’s play turned on its head.

The Story. There are two productions A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford. One a full-length version with enough actors to play the parts, reviewed previously on my blog and the other, this one, a chamber version in which four actors play all the parts. I will list the two synopses versions from the Stratford brochure.

First the version usually associated with this play: “Threatened with death if she marries against her father’s wishes, Hermia elopes with her lover, Lysander, pursued by rival suitor Demetrius and his spurned admirer, Helena. In the enchanted woods, love’s lunacy reaches its giddiest heights—both for the bewildered couples and for an aspiring actor transformed into the unlikely consort of a fairy queen.”

Then the description of the chamber version of the play: “Two couples become gods, animals, demons, monsters, children, playthings and finally, gradually compassionate, honest loving adults. Across one intense night of confusion, delusion, repression, permission, forgiveness and release, Shakespeare’s masterpiece moves right into the open heart of our multiple selves and conflicted identities—the only thing that we know for certain in this life is that, along with the climate, we are changing.”

The Production. There seems to be a concerted effort to get away from anything that looks like a play in a theatre. A new space—the Masonic Music Hall– has been refitted to accommodate the production. The whole inside of the space has been taken over by Abigail DeVille’s art instillation. The walls are covered in bits of wood, material, thin, choppy panels of plywood. The ceiling is festooned with old chairs, some with numbers on the back, tubing, wheels, a crushed downspout, mesh. It looks like someone’s garbage or old furniture cleaned out of an attic.

The point is illusive. If every effort has been made not to reference anything done before, and certainly not in anything as staid as a theatre, then this art instillation is irrelevant to this production. It is amusing listening to some of the musings of the audience trying to explain it all, or at least to pass on what they have heard from various ‘knowledgeable’ sources. No body seems to question whether it makes sense or not.

The stage is small and not very deep. There are two doors on one side and one on the other. The set is painted a dark colour to suggest the dark forest I suppose. The rumbling soundscape of Tarek Ortiz fluctuates for the whole production. Sometimes subtle, more often so loud the room vibrates.

The production starts in darkness, with the sound rumbling to its loudest point. James F. Ingalls’s lighting snaps up revealing the two couples (Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena) facing the wall, holding it, leaning against it. They look strung out, depressed, morose, unhappy and irritated. I’m thinking that perhaps these characters are having a bad day at re-hab. Mike Nadajewski appears particularly high strung as Lysander. There are a lot of attempts at ‘affection’. The men especially stroke the women, caressing, kissing. The women occasionally return the attempt at affection, but most times it seems they are annoyed at the effort, especially Trish Lindström as Hermia.

One of the many things that strike me about this production is its overwhelming anger. Everybody seems to be raging. There is a sense of malaise, anguish, fury, irritation and despair. Puck, usually impish and irreverent if Shakespeare’s lines are any indication, is irritated when “she” (Sarah Afful) says “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes” when she has to find the flower for Oberon. Otherwise Puck is bad-tempered and humourless.

Oberon is particularly angry. He (Dion Johnstone) truly bellows when he is describing what Titania will experience after the flower’s juice is dropped in her eye:

“The next thing then she waking looks upon,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.”

Huh? Why the anger? When the liquor of the magic flower is put in Demetrius’s eyes to correct Puck’s previous error, Demetrius screams in anguish as if tortured. Perhaps he thinks his eyeballs are going to be gouged out? Wrong play?

That said, the scene between Bottom (Dion Johnstone) and Titania (Trish Lindström) is playful, sensual and very sexy. Bottom and Titania sit on the ground. She is behind him with her legs spread. He sits between her legs and lies back resting on her chest. She strokes him. He looks back smiling. It is a rare moment of humour and sensuality in this dark and morose production.

To fully understand what is happening in the production you have to be very familiar with this play so that you know who is saying what. The program does not list the characters the actors are playing. You just have to know.

Actors flit from character to character without benefit of different costumes, make-up, props, voices or anything else that differentiates them. The lines are given in the same way, no matter what character an actor is playing. Everyone has relentless angst, rage, and despair. As one character aptly says, it makes for a ‘tedious night.’

Comment. It’s always fascinating reading Director Peter Sellars’ extensive program notes. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Chamber Play, he says that perhaps Shakespeare’s play is “too well known.” Perhaps that’s why he has chosen to present it in a way that seems so at odds with what Shakespeare is actually saying and how his characters would talk.

In his program note Sellars references ‘Shakespeare’s moral cosmology” and how it “mirrors the Buddhist Six Classes of Living Beings.” He references Buddha, Jesus and Allah in the Koran and all manner of esoteric musings to support his concept of the play. What he doesn’t seem to reference is the actual play. Shakespeare’s play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to have been forgotten in Sellars’ efforts to create a startling concept of it.

Of course anyone with a passing acquaintance of theatre knows there is not one prescribed way to do any play, Shakespeare notwithstanding. Every thing is open to interpretation. Just witness the two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream playing at the Stratford Festival now. Chris Abraham’s production looks ‘straightforward’ but of course isn’t.

Peter Sellars’ chamber version of the play is a radical rethinking of it. Both are provocative.

And as there are many ways of interpreting a play for production, there are as many opinions of it as there are people watching it. Many will fall on their knees in lemming-like slavish supplication to the iconoclastic efforts of Peter Sellars, thinking this is the most incredible interpretation of the play they have ever seen. Others will think it’s a load of pretentious crap. Me, I hated it. Hell would be having to sit through this raging, joyless, loveless mess again. Feh.

Produced by the Stratford Festival

Opened: July 24, 2014
Closes: September 20, 2014
Cast: 4, 2 men and 2 women.
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Don Rubin July 30, 2014 at 10:38 am

Agreed. The emperor is naked.


2 Kent James August 8, 2014 at 10:57 pm

I loved it, and there’s nothing lemming-like about my love for it Lynn. I found it moving, it connected me to the text in ways that I’d never been connected, and I loved all 4 of the performances. I was prepared to dislike it, but instead was amazed by it in many ways. I can’t say I enjoyed the space – would have loved to be closer to the stage.

As for anger, you are the patron saint of angry theatre critics, and it does you no favours. Your anger frequently speaks so loudly that the many things you know and the many insights you have can barely be heard.


3 Peter Scribner August 18, 2014 at 11:22 pm

This was one of the most astonishing theatrical experiences I have ever had. Four young people locked in a barren room. Like a Becket play, we know not why they are there or who they are – maybe prisoners locked up and key thrown away or survivors in a bunker after world burns; the context doesn’t matter; we just accept the situation as presented. Locked away and forgotten for who knows how long, all the pretenses of civilization long since worn away. There is no authority; there is no adult to sort things out. In a state of helplessness they pursue the vaguely remembered rules of how relationships are suppose to work. No hope, but nothing else to do. They do not play different ‘characters’; each is a specific character that has multiple names. Wearily they replay head games, like Pyramus and Thisby, over and over, each with his or her well worn ‘role’. A distopian version of the mind games replayed over and over in “Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” Anger, rage – obvious byproducts of helplessness and isolation. I wasn’t ‘told’ about this interpretation. I knew absolutely nothing about the production, other than it was four actors playing “Midsummer”, and the program notes (which I didn’t read ahead of time) are gibberish. I just opened myself up to the production as presented. An astonishing experience.


4 Sarah wiley August 22, 2014 at 8:14 am

We saw this play in July in previews. Sellars was there! We were excited. Have loved his Mozart operas. Then experienced the production. “The longest 1 hour and 45 minutes of my life” (said by an audience member sitting nearby who I heartily agreed with). We looked forward to reading the reviews. We were shocked by the love it received from the Toronto Star, etc. Then we read yours. You nailed it. Thank you.


5 Arnold Matlin August 30, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Sellers has managed to wring out any generosity of spirit or sense of pleasure from this play. It certainly wasn’t MND. Whatever it was, it was 1 3/4 hours too long.


6 BRIAN STEIN September 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm

You are a critic of infinite and discerning taste and intelligence. I felt like I was in the middle of a bad production of No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. I was sitting in the middle of a row, five from the stage. In other words, trapped. If you check out Google for modern day torture, sitting through this mess by Sellars is not listed. One of my companions, who always awards stars for anything he sees, was not too generous last night — zero stars, which is actually was too generous. Shana tova.