A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

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** This is a preprint of an article published in the journal Shakespeare (2009) which is available online at
BBC Radio 3, 10 May 2009
This special performance recorded in London's historic Middle Temple Hall (where Twelfth Night was first performed), brought together Shakespeare's play and Mendelssohn's incidental music. The production (available on the Radio 3 website until the end of 2009) was semi-staged, with the actors in evening dress and a series of lights used to denote the fairies' presence, accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (conducted by Charles Hazlewood) and the Ladies Choir of the Enlightenment.
On hearing the play and music simultaneously for the first time, I realized just how ceremonial A Midsummer Night's Dream can be. Mendelssohn's music gives the play a stately quality, almost as if we were witnessing a court performance. The effect was intensified by the surroundings; the ornate wooden furniture and the high ceilings, which carried the actors' words onwards and upwards, almost as if they were speaking in church. This atmosphere seemed particularly appropriate in the final scene when the Rude Mechanicals performed "Pyramus and Thisbe." Although their verse-speaking seemed rudimentary, their presence in the Middle Temple Hall suggested that they had been specially invited, rather like guests at a royal Garden Party, and thereby proved how benevolent Theseus (Mark Turner) actually was. Although the court made snide remarks about the Mechanicals' lack of technique, it was clear that they enjoyed mingling with their people, if only for a limited time. The general good humour of the final scene also influenced Puck's (James Garnon's) final speech, delivered direct to the audience and the listeners. Garnon delivered it in a soothing, relaxed tone, as if defying anyone to believe that what had passed in the previous two and a half hours was anything other than light entertainment, punctuated with familiar Mendelssohn melodies.
Nonetheless the production did have its acidic moments. The four lovers Hermia (Elena Pauli), Helena (Catherine Bailey), Lysander (Alex Hassall) and Demetrius (Daniel Rigby) were all portrayed as childlike, as they expected their respective affairs to unfold in the same fashion as the courtly romances they were all familiar with. Once they entered the forest, their expectations were doomed: Puck placed them under a spell, and from then on they behaved rather like little children denied their favourite toys, shouting their lines at the tops of their voices and refusing to listen to one another. In an ingenious piece of doubling, the four actors playing the lovers also became the Rude Mechanicals: Rigby played Starveling, Hassall Flute, Barley Snug and Paull Quince. By this means we were encouraged to reflect on the fragility of social divisions separating the characters - although the lovers might have been superior to the Mechanicals, their behaviour was equally child-like. None of the characters could alter their personalities to suit changed circumstances.
The Rude Mechanicals were redeemed somewhat by their obvious enthusiasm. Although they were appalling actors, they delivered their lines with such gusto that they charmed audiences and listeners alike. The "Pyramus and Thisbe" interlude was the highlight of the production, with Bottom (John Paul Connolly) indulging in a death scene lasting fully five minutes. His impassioned, overblown mode of delivery (reminiscent of Sir Donald Wolfit in his prime) contrasted with Flute's staccato speech. If Thisbe was supposed to mourn Pyramus' death, she hardly showed it. The Mechanicals' innocence contrasted with the lovers' petulance earlier on in the production, clearly suggesting that the lovers had a lot to learn to ensure a settled future in marriage.
Ceremonially staged, enthusiastically performed to the accompaniment of an orchestra who clearly enjoyed the task of matching Mendelssohn to Shakespeare, this revival was welcomed enthusiastically by the specially invited audience. Catch it before it is removed from the website; it is certainly worth the effort.