Shakespeare’s magical tale of meddling fairies and muddled human lovers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will be presented in all of its impassioned, chest-beating glory at Red Deer College next week.
Surprisingly, it isn’t the portrayal of fairies in this post-modern age that’s presenting the biggest challenge to director Jeff Page.
He believes a certain amount of fantasy obsession has become part of our computer-game culture. With so many vampires, hobbits and comic book superheroes spilling out of movies, television, Xbox games and books, what are a few more magical creatures in the mix?
What’s proving more daunting for Page is the underlying earnestness of Shakespeare’s comedy.
He has to keep reminding the cast of 20 second-year RDC Theatre Studies students that there was no irony intended when the Bard wrote this emotional tale of misplaced love in the early 1590s.
“When a character says, ‘You are magnificent!’ there’s no sarcasm behind it,” said Page, “She means you are magnificent.”
The ironic inflexions that young people use to underscore their post-Seinfeld conversations would completely not register with the over-earnest characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And neither would the modernist tendency to play it cool in the pursuit of romance, said Page, whose play opens on Thursday, Oct. 11, in Studio A of the RDC Arts Centre.
Instead of emulating the breeziness of, say, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, the young actors are being encouraged to behave more like the deranged farmer who was beyond obsessed with singer Anne Murray. “Basically they need to be like stalkers,” said Page, with a chuckle.
For instance, the character of Helena is so besotted with Demetrius — who does not want her — that she tells him to think of her as his spaniel. “Beat me, kick me, scorn me, I will still love you!”
“Basically I have to tell the young (actor), ‘Throw yourself at his feet. Be pathetic,’” said Page. “I know it’s crazy, but if you are willing to do that, that’s the comic payoff.”
The audience must believe that the love-crazed characters would absolutely walk through fire for the objects of their desire — regardless of whether their devotion is returned. And most of it isn’t, since unrequited love is at the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The play’s convoluted plot goes something like this:
Helena loves Demetrius to distraction, but he is busy pursuing Hermia — who only wants Lysander.
Lysander loves Hermia, but through the interference of the meddlesome forest fairies, he instead becomes enraptured with her friend Helena.
Added to this love-struck chaos is the fairy queen Titania’s feud with fairy king Oberon. To get back at his strong-willed wife, Oberon arranges a potion to have her fall in love with a donkey (who is really an enchanted know-it-all named Bottom).
Since this is Shakespeare, rest assured that everything will be set right in the second act.
Page believes A Midsummer Night’s Dream has endured for centuries because of its universal theme about the course of love never running smoothly. Even when love is returned, lovers are often torn apart by war, sickness or death, said Page. “Something always comes along to mess it up.”
The director loves the dramatic action in the play, and encourages the young actors to use Shakespeare’s eloquent language to fuel their characters’ obsessions.
“One of the things I’m working on is identifying what’s happening in each moment. One actor says ‘I love you,’ another actor is opposed to that, so there are these love triangles emerging and each actor has to be committed to one side of that.”
This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in a fantasy Athens that has elements of both the prim Edwardian era and the revolutionary 1920s, a time of transformation and rejection of old values.
Page sees an almost Rousseau-ian contrast between the play’s “civilized” city setting and the “savage” forest one, in which societal laws do not apply.
The costumes will gradually lose their constrictions, changing from corseted to free-flowing ones as the play’s action moves from Athens into the forest.