‘April is the cruellest month’
But if we allow ourselves a break from breeding lilacs out of the dead land, it’s as good as any for the first post on my new website.
Once every twenty-five years, the Hampshire village where I’ve lived since 2007 puts on an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It comes round again in 2015, and last October I was invited to direct it.
One performance only, in a meadow, on midsummer night. Once every twenty-five years. I’ve never directed a play before. What could possibly go wrong? We’ve been rehearsing since October. Yesterday I sent everyone the following email:
My apologies for a mass email that is long AND urgent AND important (!) but I want to inform everyone, cast and crew together and as soon as possible, about some exciting developments.
Read on … and feedback is welcome if you are able to respond quickly (today, preferably morning please), because although we have just about enough time to make everything work, we do need to get on with it. But don’t worry, changes for individual cast members won’t be too difficult (mainly just costumes and accents), and there is plenty of time to embrace and enjoy the changes. So please keep up with learning your lines.
In summary, the break from rehearsals has given me a chance to think. I’ve had to address some personal doubts, in particular a feeling that my original intention – to go with an English, pastoral treatment – was a little unambitious. Yes it would be charming but it’d be almost identical to so many other productions of the play. So I’ve found a change of perspective that will make ours distinctive – but it strictly WON’T be ‘different for different’s sake’; rather it will allow us to exploit the more edgy elements implicit (rather than explicit) in the text. I’m sorry I didn’t come up with this earlier but the change of vision is part of an evolving artistic process and these things can’t be hurried. Anyway, I’m really excited about the fresh approach!
Which is: Shakespeare himself was no stranger to the notion of risk and new frontiers; we should remember that the New World was being explored and colonised around the time the play was written. So our Athens will become a Wild West frontier town set in the Gold Rush era (this takes us from the 1580s to the 1850s, a neat number reversal, and the point still stands). Theseus Duke of Athens translates perfectly into the sheriff figure (John Wayne is the archetype). From this it follows that Hippolyta, the conquered leader of a tribe of Amazons (prostitutes), is the former madame of the town brothel that closed when the sheriff cleaned up the town; she’s a worldly, pragmatic, blowsy but ultimately moral character (think Mae West). Egeus (black hat, cigar, pencil moustache, string tie) translates as the town’s Mr Big, owner of the saloon, casino, hotel etc and now paying obeisance to the Duke. Demetrius and Lysander will make utterly convincing young cowboys (leather chaps, 10-gallon hats, Colt 45s and spurs rather than riding boots and swords), and Hermia and Helena will be innocent belles of the Doris Day stamp (plaits, gingham dresses, aprons, wicker hand baskets). The boys will need to develop lasso skills for the chase scenes in the wood.
The mechanicals will not need so great a transformation; they’ll become a group of ‘49ers: uncouth, quarrelsome, hard-drinking ruffians who pan for gold hoping to strike it rich. I’ll deal with the necessary textual amendments to include vocabulary such as ‘varmit’, ‘critturs’, ‘vittals’, and so on.
The wood (now outback) is where we can really explore the possibilities. There are obvious resonances between Shakespeare’s fairy characters and aspects of Native American culture and I see lots of scope for the interplay of ‘noble savage’/innocence vs. ‘civilisation’/corruption, magic/faith vs. realism/cynicism etc. Oberon and Titania will still be royal but their robes will be leather sarongs with elaborate beadwork and the headdresses will of course be of feathers, eagle if we can get them (we may have to work around RSPB red tape). A tepee will ideally articulate the space and serve as Titania’s ‘bank whereon etc’. A Hiawatha-type delivery of lines (slow, deep monotone with no unstressed syllables) will convey the idea to the audience, reinforced by brick-red, all-over body paint. Likewise the fairies will be young Native Americans, also brick red, with headbands, tomahawks, bows and arrows, leather skirts and moccasins.
You may be thinking, won’t all this look a bit silly in a Hampshire field?! Don’t worry – I’ve already sourced sand (4 tonnes will cover the designated area), and I’m assured it will not prevent re-growth of the grass for much more than a couple of years so will pose no problem for the Childs who as you know are lending us the field. We can quite easily find the appropriate prickly pear cacti, bison skulls, maybe an abandoned, burnt-out wagon, to further ‘de-Anglicise’ the setting, and we’ll create more atmosphere with ambient music – a soundtrack including Dvorak’s New World theme and some Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), will play softly and continuously from speakers hidden in the trees.
Of course this requires a BIG re-think on costumes (apologies for undoing the good work already done on this), and on music (sorry Nigel, we’ll need a banjo obligato for Philostrate), and there are implications for budget (fingers crossed it’ll stretch to some tumbleweed and a wind machine), but these considerations shouldn’t stand in the way of originality and innovation. I hope you’re as excited as I am to be part of a memorable production that really will be a fresh take on the original. I’m so looking forward to it!
And do keep learning your lines!