A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Young Vic Theatre
Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins with design by Johannes Schütz
Main Cast: Michael Gould, Thesues/Oberon; Anastasia Hillie, Hipollyta/Titania; John Dagleish, Lysander; Jemima Rooper, Hermia; Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Demitrius; Anna Madely, Helena; The Mechanicals: Matthew Steer, Peter Quince; Leo Bill, Bottom; Sam Cox, Robin Starveling; Geoff Ayemer, Tom Snout. Lloyd Hutchinson; Egeus/Puck.
When we think of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sort of things that conventionally come to mind wouldn’t be out of place in one of those wonderful fairy-emporium shops – like those that Glastonbury is famous for. But this Dream, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, definitely stands outside of this. We’re in no a fantasy fairy wood – rather we are out in the field: literally and metaphorically. The characters stand on a semi-circular muddy stage, illuminated by harsh halogen bar lamps that run around the inner rim of its edge, and all backed by a mirror. Lovers will wrestle (both carnally and competitively) in this mud – as if it’s the last day at Glastonbury. This post-festival vibe seems a deliberate appeal to the idea that (as Emma Garland puts it in her piece for Noisey, ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit.’) ‘summer music festivals are basically the closest thing humans have to mating season’. For the mud covering the stage becomes a physical representation of love stripped bare – revealing it in all its messiness: un-idealised, raw, and at times grotesque. Yet we are also out of the fairy-wood in another sense. As we look at the stage we cannot avoid seeing ourselves – reflected in the mirror backing the stage. Indeed our faces might as well stand in for the trees of the wood where the Dream we are about to watch takes place.
At the same time, the mirror acts as a constant reminder that we are in fact an audience. It essentially removes the forth wall – like the signs held up by actors announcing the scene changes in Brecht’s theatre; an act that aimed to encourage the audience to recognise themselves as an audience, and therefore to be discouraged from over-identifying with the characters on stage, giving them space to adopt a more ‘socially critical’ attitude to the characters. But it’s not just the mirror that makes us feel disconcertingly alienated from the play’s main action. For whilst the characters all wear modern clothing (they could easily be any member of the audience), their movements stop us from becoming fully involved with them emotionally. Throughout the performance, none of them leave the stage (although sometimes they stand or sit in rows facing us along the shelf-like niches to the left and right of the mirror; they sip from bottles of water, almost as if we’re seeing the actors backstage). Instead they move around mechanically – like commuters-cum-cyborgs – creating different scene-zones on the bleak, and otherwise empty, stage. Sometimes they just stop, like puppets whose strings have been dropped, and face plant into the mud. They don’t seem quite human; or rather they seem to be humans controlled by some sort of impersonal force.
And, in many ways the characters in this play are. The plot is a tangled knot of love-ties made and un-made by magic, and often in response to social norms. At the play’s start we are met by Hermia, whose father (Egeus) is attempting to have her
‘consent to marry with Demetrius’,
instead of Lysander (the man with whom Hermia is in love). Lysander’s social standing is equivalent to that of Demetrius; Egeus is, on the face of it, more concerned by the fact that Hermia marrying Lysander would conflict with his having power over her according to the social norms of their society:
‘I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.’
He claims that Lysander has
‘With cunning […] filch’d my daughter’s heart,
Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me’.
It is to the Duke Theseus that Egeus ‘begs’. Theseus himself is soon to wed Hippolyta, and
in this production an interesting parallel is drawn between Hermia (now lying face down in the mud, having heard Theseus support her father’s appeal: ‘to you your father should be as a god’) and Hippolyta. Before this scene we watched Hippolyta (dressed in a suffocatingly tight looking black suit) ritualistically put on high heels; she seems to struggle to put them on – and when she places her feet down the skinny-stilettos quickly sink and stick in the mud. Throughout the scene she appears to be almost limping. This ritualistic dressing in restrictive (and debilitating) clothing seems to reflect her restrained and almost fearful reaction to Theseus’ speaking of their soon to come wedding (and night):
‘O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires’.
Hippolyta looks on, rigid, going along with what is expected of her – she seems constrained by her situation, just like Hermia.
But unlike Hippolyta, Hermia decides to rebel – running away with Lysander into the woods. They are followed by Demetrius (who has been told of their eloping by Helena, who is in love with Demetrius and spurned by him). But the woods are inhabited by magical beings, and the lovers’ arguments disturb them. Puck (servant to Oberon the fairy-king) is sent by his master to quiet them down. He puts the juice of a plant that will make the recipient fall in love with whatever they see when they wake on Lysander’s eyelids – mistaking him for Demitrius (Oberon wanted Demitrius to fall for Helena). Lysander wakes to see Helena, and falls for her. In his interpretation of this element of the play, Hill-Gibbins seems to take some cues from Jan Kott’s (whose 1964 work Shakespeare Our Contemporary explored the direct connections he saw between Shakespeare and then-modern European drama, including Brecht and Beckett) feeling that ‘the reduction of characters to love partners seems to me the most peculiar characteristic of this cruel dream; and perhaps its most modern quality’. Lysander and Demitrius wrestle in the mud, like male animals in mating season jacked-up on testosterone. They seem completely out of control – or controlled by something beyond themselves. Of course the magic Puck has used on them is out of their control, but it is difficult not to read their animalistic behaviour as revealing our idea of human love (which we like to imagine exists on a level beyond the physical – we tend to idealise the notion of finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’) as, at base, an impersonal appetitive drive.
Even before Puck puts the juice of the plant on Lysander’s eyelids, we see this in action. As they lay down to sleep on the forest floor, Lysander tries to persuade Hermia to allow him to lie next to her:
‘One turf shall serve as pillow for us both;
One heart, one bed, two bosoms and one troth.’
She refuses him,
‘Nay, good Lysander […] lie further off’,
but he persists,
‘riddl[ing] very prettily’
(as Hermia puts it) to try and talk her into it. This is brief, and after her second rebuttal he seems to have learnt his lesson:
‘Amen, amen, to that fair prayer, say I;
And then end life when I end loyalty!
Here is my bed: sleep give thee all his rest!’
However, in this production we can’t be so sure. For as he ‘riddle[d]’ he was pulling Hermia into a close and distinctly sexual embrace: reaching under her skirt, and seeming not to hear her words as he started to lie her down. It is only with the help of her legs (kicking and pushing) that Hermia manages to force a response to her panicked
‘Lie further off’.
Even Lysander seems shocked at his behaviour – as if he doesn’t quite understand how he could have been so possessed.
Despite this, when Lysander turns in favour of Helena, the women behave just like the men – wrestling in the mud. They even throw handfuls of it at each other, along with verbal abuse (centring on physical attributes – Hermia’s being shorter than Helena):
‘Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.’
It all sounds (excuse the anachronism) bizarrely Darwinian. If this is the state of young love, we are given an insight into more mature relationships in Theseus and Hippolyta, and Titania (the fairy-queen) and Oberon – who are both played by Michael Gould (Theseus/Oberon) and Anastasia Hillie (Hippolyta/Titania). These dual roles develop a parallel between the two pairs – although one between foils: Theseus’ sexual dominance, versus Oberon’s jealousy and feelings of sexual inadequacy; Hippolyta’s uptightness, versus Titania’s sexual yearning. We see Theseus at the play’s start looking in the mirror, flexing his muscles as he dons a black silk dressing gown – he looks like Hugh Hefner. Theseus’ dominating sexuality contrasts the sexual anxiety of Oberon. For he is angry that Titania refuses his request that she give up her page-boy to him. In retaliation he takes the same plant that he orders Puck to put on Lysander’s (and, later Demitrius’) eyes, and to use it on Titania – ensuring that when she wakes the first thing she sees is
‘some vile thing’.
This turns out to be Bottom – one of the Mechanicals (a small theatre band led by Peter Quint), who has been transfigured by Puck into a man with an ass’ head (making Oberon’s queen seem an ass for falling in love with an ass).
As Titania wakes from her fairy bower (in this production simply a patch of the mud covering the stage; in the foetal position she seems vulnerable) she sets eyes on Bottom – and falls in love. When she sees him Bottom (hilariously played by Leo Bill) is singing – but instead of the traditional song (which gives actors the opportunity to do their best impression of a donkey: ‘Whose note full many a man doth mark, / And dares not answer nay;-‘, hopefully rousing tumultuous giggles from the audience) he sings Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’. Whilst some might miss the traditional moment of comedy, Leo Bill’s increasingly whiney (and cringey) rendition of Aerosmith is truly hilarious – with each increase of volume drawing a peal of giggles, and eventually outright hard laughs. However the song choice also draws out the sexual politics between Titania and Oberon: ‘I could stay awake just to hear you breathing / Watch you smile while you are sleeping / While you’re far away and dreaming’, is both tender and not a little creepy – we could easily imagine the jealous Oberon singing it. But the song also fits in with this Bottom: he looks like a festival-going guy with his long hair, too-tight skinny jeans, wellies and aviator spectacles, exuding a sort of teenage sexual energy, which Titania seems to find exilherating – liberating, even. He seems to allow her to be more open with her sexuality. She takes great pleasure in caressing his ears – which are actually a pair of stuffed nude tights (reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’; he wears another pair on his arms, and he also wears another pair around his waist – except that this is stuffed with an empty Evian bottle, and is unmistakably phallic). Bottom taps into a deep vein of Titania’s sexuality: raw, inelegant, and dirty. We see this in particular when Titania calls upon three of her ‘fairies’ to serve Bottom:
‘Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Moth! and Mustardseed!’
No fairies come. Instead Titania takes on their roles – in a sort of erotic role play. Even Bottom seems sexed-out by her; in response to her role-playing there comes only an abashed ‘sorry’. Perhaps this is why she refuses to hand over her page-boy to Oberon – the latter cannot give her what she needs.
It seems that Oberon has underestimated the power of Titania’s sexual appetites. Later, when Hillie (Titania) is again Hippolyta, Bottom’s (now in the role of Pyramus as part of the play the Mechanicals put on for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding) speech in anguish believing his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, Hippolyta is moved –
‘Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.’
It’s as if a switch has clicked in her head; for from here on out she seems more Titania than Hippolyta. Bottom too seems to recognise her, and he addresses his speeches (as Pyrimus) to her – stressing, in particular, their carnal imagery –
‘Come, come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
Lay them in gore…’
– as they grow closer and closer, eventually entwining themselves, as they sink onto the muddy ground. Again lovers are ‘reduc[ed…] to love partners’ only – something that is emphasised by the farcical performance of the Mechanicals (acting as if acting badly is notoriously difficult, but these Mechanicals do it well – Sam Cox’s teenagerly-defiant ‘Moon’ and Aaron Heffernan’s childishly-fastidious Thisbe are particularly good). They perform the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe – before Pyramus believes his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, they whispered their love to one another through a wall (a physical symbol of their families’ denial of their wanting to be together). But when he believes his lover to have been killed he rashly throws himself on his sword – and, when Thisbe returns, seeing her love dead, kills herself too.
We hold this narrative as an idealised view of true love: it is, in essence, that of Romeo and Juliet (the plot of which Shakespeare’s 16th to early-17t century audience would have been familiar with, just as we are today). But it is undeniable that there is a degree of comedy in the extremity of the lovers’ impulsive actions – even something of the grotesque. The Mechanicals’ performance is meant to be amateurish, but the degree to which their performance hangs together as something that we can still term a ‘performance’ is a matter of direction. Hill-Gibbins chooses to allow it to totally dissolve (with Bottom’s becoming descending into the mud with Hippolyta/Titania in a quasi-carnal embrace) – drawing out the grotesque element in the Mechanical’s show. For example the Lion wears only his underwear, and one of the stuffed pairs of tights that were Bottom’s ears; when he roars he does so flailing his arms about madly. This makes the formal (almost courtly) commentary of the characters watching the play (Theseus, Hippolyta, Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demitrius) seem completely disjointed – perhaps suggesting that the notions of love that we sustain in society (e.g. idealising ‘the one’ – as Romeo and Juliet do to one another, so much so that they choose to die as opposed to living without their respective ‘one’) fail to marry up with love in reality. The broken figures of Hermia – face in the mud at the feet of Lysander – Demetrius and Helena, on either side of the Mechanical’s ‘stage’ epitomise this: the mud they are caked in seems a sort of metaphor for the emotional damage love has done to them.
We might say that ‘love’ has caused them this pain, but it was Puck who took Lysander for Demitrius (Oberon sent him to use magic on Demitrius to make him fall for Helena), and thereby set the lovers sparring in the mud. It seems that Kott’s influence is also strongly seen in this Puck. Kott’s Puck is not ‘just a playful dwarf from a German fairy tale, or even a poetic gremlin in the fashion of a romantic féerie’, and nor is Hill-Gibbins’. This Puck is an ageing punk, irritable, and bitter – he wears a scraggy red and back wig. His mistaking Lysander for Demitrius is not a ‘playful’ gaffe, but rather an act of deliberate negligence: he simply doesn’t care. In this regard it seems Kott’s influence can be seen in a far more fundamental sense, for it is Puck who ‘pulls all the characters on strings’, ‘put[ting] the mechanism of this world in motion’ (manipulating relationships of love; he might even be seen as the mechanism of love in physical form) – and in this production, as he does so, he literally ‘puts it in motion and mocks it at the same time’. When Oberon demonstrates (with many elaborate gestures) how the juice of the plant is to be used, as he
‘streak[s Titania’s] eyes’
with it, Puck imitates him self-mockingly – and when it comes to his actually using the plant he goes further. Instead of miming the delicate placement of the plant’s juice onto Lysander’s eyes (as Oberon showed him) he takes one of the bottles of water (sat on the shelf-like part of the back wall) and drips it onto Lysander’s head; he looks up at the audience grinning – waiting for a response. We laugh; he opens the bottle again and proceeds to empty its contents onto Lysander’s head. We laugh again, more loudly this time – his seemingly excessive cruelty is oddly funny; he begins to beat Lysander with the empty bottle.
Therefore, if we do understand this Puck as in some sense to represent the mechanism of love (‘the mechanism of this world’; it is worth adding that he occasionally acts like a stage director – albeit one who is apathetic to the health of his actors – he violently throws Demitrius and Lysander from the shelf-like niches along the back wall onto the stage), we simultaneously find ourselves regarding him as personifying cruelty, and indifference. The last of these are reflected in other moments. For example when Bottom (now returned to his fully human form) tediously runs in circles around the stage – until he is tripped up by Puck, when he continues his laps, but now on all fours like an ape or a baby. This is funny – but in the absurd sense. For it seems that, like the character’s in the Absurdist plays of Beckett (that are often read as presenting worlds that are apparently indifferent to humanity, and where human life has no inherent value or meaning), Bottom is going nowhere (even regressing – devolving into an apish/baby-like crawl) – and is not helped by the apparently arbitrary action of ‘the mechanism of this world’ (Puck). As the play draws to a close the cast, led by Titania (who holds Bottom’s hand), all join hands in a long line; she runs – pulling everyone along with her – running them in circles, and what seems like impossible knots. However, the chain remains single-file: everyone is left chasing – never catching, never making a meaningful connection.
Still in single-file, they press themselves against the mirror (which has been mostly painted over; now it is simply a black wall – with the exception of a small section at the top in which we can see only ourselves), with their backs to the audience. This effectively isolates us, the audience, from the characters – who jump as if trying to reach the reflected faces (our faces) in the small strip of mirror left unpainted. Hermia draws giggles from us as she jumps more aggressively than the rest to make up for her being (in her own words) ‘so dwarfish’. Is it cruel for us to laugh? Or do we laugh to distract ourselves from the disconcerting sense that these characters have suggested (and are suggesting) to us that love is not what we think it to be? For in the world they present us, love is not an idealised vision of finding ‘the one’ or our ‘soulmate’, rather it is a a case of impersonal forces drive people together (just as they may drive us apart – consider the case of Lysander and Hermia). Further, as they stand reaching up to our reflections in the mirror, they seem to question the the very notion of being ‘together’ – challenging the idea that we really can form meaningful human connections at all.
Some have said of that this production of Dream ‘dispenses with all of the magic and much of the comedy’. They aren’t wrong. The laughs evoked by this comedy are not jovial – they aren’t full of the warmth of a midsummers’ night. Rather they are laughs spurred by disorientation and discomfort when two contrary ideas collide (challenging a conventionally held conceptions). They are the laughs the idea of a ‘British summer’ can bring, or the seemingly crazy and carnal acts attending music festivals (like Glastonbury) can unleash. And whilst its arguable that the striking staging might detract from the poetry of Shakespeare’s words (as might the focus on physical theatre – for example Bottom’s running around the stage), it might equally be said that it draws out challenging themes that our conventional fairytale-like conception of Dream shies away from. Puck ( delivers the last words of Dream:
‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.’
This production asks us to take a position: to stay in a dream of love as we imagine it (an idealised quest where finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’ is possible: ‘think but this, and all is mended’), or to wake up to its realities (as this production presents them – perhaps epitomised in the arbitrary, indifferent, and sometimes cruel Puck: ‘the mechanism of this world’). Do we ‘the Puck a liar call’? That’s up to you.
More information about the production can be found at: http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/a-midsummer-nights-dream
by Emily Swettenham
7th March 2017.
 Garland, E. 2014. ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit’. Noisey. [online]. Available at: https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/having-sex-at-festivals-isnt-just-disgusting-its-shit [Accessed: 7th March 2016].
 Brecht, B. Collated by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. Translated by Davis, J., Fursland, R., Giles, S., Hill, V., Imbrigotta, K., Silberman, M. and Willett, J. Edited by Silberman, M., Giles, S. and Kuhn, T. 2015. Brecht on Theatre. Third Edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.: London. p.g.187.
 Kott, J. Translated by Taborski, B. 1964. ‘Titania and the Ass’s Head’. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London. p.g.176.
 Ibid. p.g.172.
 Ibid. p.g.174.
 Hemmings, S. 2017. ‘A midsummer night’s misogyny at the Young Vic’. The Financial Times. [online]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/1a715050-fa91-11e6-9516-2d969e0d3b65 [Accessed: 7th March 2016].