Guest Blog: Shakespeare's magic plays for the poor theatre
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Benjamin Blyth: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a serious problem. Apart from being steeped in both ‘traditional’ and ‘avant garde’ performance history, it also lends itself to big money and big concepts. Somewhere between the neon stockings and Italian fascists there is the beating heart of a play that has been largely forgotten; forgotten as much for its latent problems as for its boundless joy.
Shakespeare’s genius anticipated not only Freud and Stanislavski but also Brecht and Grotowski. The astonishing Globe-to-Globe season at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was as strong a reminder of this as the English theatregoing audience could want. Theatre companies from across the world brought us these timeless stories and told them from the inside of a box, with a chair, or a bed, or just different hats – in a language usually totally unfamiliar. It was a stunning success because the theatre is magic, and magic is universal. This is the real reason that I’m directing the Dream. I want to create a play that treats Shakespeare’s magic, even for the briefest of moments, as real.
As a company, our research began by examining the pagan roots of the seventeenth century religious world-view. The staff of Tredwell’s (an excellent occult bookshop on Store Street in Bloomsbury) pointed us towards an earlier Persian root to the fairies of English mythology, and through this lens the wood becomes a far more sinister place than Enlightenment thinking suggests. We were fortunate to procure the linguistic services of Helen Barr of New College, Oxford, in translating the entirety of Puck into a dialect of Middle-English that she has humbly dubbed ‘Mercian Doggerel’. The English voice of Puck resonates profoundly within this older, more substantial forest, built from the text but free from an overbearing conceptual context.
Where modern actors and audience members don’t believe in magic, so the majority of 21st century London audiences (unlike those of the 17th century) are not usually devoutly religious. Written perhaps for a courtly wedding, although undoubtedly commercially produced, the Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting forays into grassroots religious belief. We’ve approached the religious status-quo of the late 16th and early 17th centuries through the text, with pagan trochees of the forest contrasting to the puritanical blank verse of the oppressive social order in the first scene. Furthermore we’ve linked the prose of the mechanicals to rural English Catholicism, the kind closest to Shakespeare’s own family.
By returning to the issues facing the audiences of the 17th century, I hope we have created a production which honours the poor theatre of Shakespeare’s magic plays. If we are ciphers to the great accompt of the Shakespearean cannon, then I am with Theseus. “I will see that play, for never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it”.