About this Recording
NA315012 - SHAKESPEARE, W.: Midsummer Night's Dream (A) (Unabridged)
English 

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

A Midsummer

Night’s Dream

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most enduringly popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and it is not difficult to see why: the work blends several kinds of comedy with a powerful atmosphere of magic and mystery and a satisfying set of contrasts—between city and country, reason and imagination, love and infatuation.

 

The play dates from 1595-6, and therefore belongs to Shakespeare’s early maturity as a dramatist. There is some disagreement about whether A Midsummer Night’s Dream was specially written for an aristocratic wedding. No direct evidence for this speculation exists, although the festive and optimistic emphasis at the end—the fairies blessing the ‘bride-bed’—would certainly be appropriate. One senses, too, a celebratory delight in the young writer’s new-found richness of ideas and mastery of form, and it is interesting to see from what a wide range of sources Shakespeare drew in order to create what is nevertheless a highly original work.

 

Sources

 

The anticipation and completion of Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding, which frames the action, is taken from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. Puck’s origin, on the other hand, owes more to folklore than literature; the ‘mechanicals’ or ‘clowns’ (Bottom, Quince et al) are clearly caricatured Elizabethan workingmen, while the story of Pyramus and Thisbe came to Shakespeare through Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. No single source, however, can account for the miraculous transformation Shakespeare works upon these diverse materials.

 

Synopsis of the Play

 

Act 1, Scene 1: The setting is Athens. Theseus and Hippolyta look forward to their wedding in four days’ time. Egeus enters, angrily demanding that his daughter Hermia be forced to marry Demetrius, while Hermia defiantly asserts her love for Lysander. Lysander and Hermia, left alone, decide to elope the following night: they will meet in the wood outside the city. Helena enters, lamenting her unrequited love for Demetrius, and the lovers reveal their plan to her. Scene 2: A group of Athenian workmen plan to perform ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ before the ‘Duke and Duchess on their wedding-day at night’. They agree to rehearse secretly in the wood on the next night.

 

Act 2, Scene 1: The action moves to the wood on the following evening. Puck, Oberon’s servant, meets a Fairy belonging to Titania: then master and mistress appear, and quarrel violently over a ‘little changeling boy’ with whom Titania will not part. Oberon sends Puck off to fetch him the flower ‘love-in-idleness’, with the juice of which he will compel Titania to fall humiliatingly in love with the first creature she sees on waking. Demetrius enters, pursued

by the lovesick Helena; Oberon, seeing this, instructs the returning Puck to anoint the eyes of the ‘disdainful youth’, Demetrius, so that he will again love Helena. Scene 2: Titania, in her bower, prepares for bed. Once she is asleep, Oberon squeezes the juice on her eyes. Lysander and Hermia enter and lie down to sleep. Puck, mistaking one Athenian youth for another, anoints Lysander’s eyes. Helena, still pursuing Demetrius, stumbles across the sleeping Lysander who awakes, declares his passion for her and runs after her. Hermia wakes to find herself abandoned.

 

Act 3, Scene 1: The Athenian ‘mechanicals’ enter to rehearse their play. Bottom, awaiting his cue off-stage, is mischievously transformed by Puck: he reappears with an ass’s head. His colleagues flee in terror, leaving Bottom to confront the ardor of the waking Titania who is ‘much enamored’ of his ‘fair shape’. Scene 2: Puck and Oberon confer. Oberon, seeing Demetrius and Hermia, realizes Puck’s error. He dispatches Puck to bring Helena to him, meanwhile anointing the sleeping Demetrius’ eyes so that he may wake and see Helena. Lysander enters, protesting his love to Helena; their noise awakes Demetrius who thus joins Lysander in passionate courtship of her. Hermia enters sadly and then cannot understand Lysander’s coldness. All four fall to bitter quarrelling. Oberon therefore instructs Puck to lead the couples apart and then use the juice on Lysander’s eyes so that his love for Hermia will be restored.

 

Act 4, Scene 1: Titania cossets the bemused Bottom before they sleep. Oberon undoes the ‘hateful imperfection of her eyes’ and she accepts his victory in the quarrel. Dawn arrives, and with it Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus, out hunting. They discover the sleeping couples. Once awake, their obvious happiness together moves Theseus to overrule Egeus and propose a triple wedding. Bottom, alone, wakes to wonder at his ‘dream’. Scene 2: The ‘clowns’, in despair at the loss of Bottom, are overjoyed at his return.

 

Act 5, Scene 1: The wedding rites completed, Theseus calls for entertainment and chooses the clowns’ play, which is presented with ludicrous incompetence but sincere intention. All retire to bed at midnight, and the Fairies enter to bless the house.

 

Stage History

 

We can be fairly sure that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed at court in 1604, but the next recorded occasion is in 1662 when Samuel Pepys saw a production and described it as ‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’. From this date until the 20th century A Midsummer Night’s Dream was only known in radically adapted versions.

 

Purcell in The Fairy Queen of 1692 first exploited its musical potential. The dominance of spectacle, dancing and music in this production was maintained throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, including (for example) Garrick’s 1755 version (The Fairies). Mme. Lucia Vestris’ 1840 production restored most of Shakespeare’s text and at least restricted the number of songs, although the operatic style still predominated, with lavish special effects and a huge cast. Mendelssohn’s incidental music, composed in 1843, became de rigueur for all performances in the Victorian period—Max Reinhardt’s 1935 Hollywood version still maintained the tradition.

 

Harley Granville-Barker’s 1914 production restored the full text and stripped away Mendelssohn’s music and the overblown staging, thus emphasizing ‘dramatic rather than scenic illusion’ (R.A. Foakes, introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition). Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured disturbingly vivid sets by John Piper and fairies more sinister than innocent, but it was Peter Brook’s 1970 production of the play which seemed at last to provide a truly 20th century reading of the text. His set consisted of a bright white box in which the actors performed like circus artists, bringing out the ‘dark and powerful currents of sensuality’ (John Kane) within an apparently playful context.

 

Commentary

 

Certain themes stand out with obvious clarity in any reading of the play. Varieties of love abound: there is the naive infatuation of the young lovers, counterbalanced by the mature and rational affection between Theseus and Hippolyta; darker currents of lust are suggested by the Titania/Bottom liaison; and there is the innocent intensity of the mechanicals’ comradeship as they struggle to achieve pathos in their presentation of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, itself a story of tragic love in the mode of Romeo and Juliet.

 

The play, then, might be seen as a study of the blind power of love modified and ultimately blessed by the experience of suffering, albeit artificially condensed into one night of madness. How seriously we take these ideas will vary: Jan Kott famously drew attention to the dark and sinister aspects of the ‘fairy’ world, while cynics might point out that the happy resolution of the lovers’ difficulties is only achieved by the ‘artificial’ intervention of Oberon. Indisputably, the idea of transformation informs almost every part of the play: Bottom is ‘translated’ into an ass; the lovers see each other afresh when they wake from their dream (‘And I have found Demetrius, like a jewel, /Mine own, and not mine own’); Theseus is suspicious of the transforming power of the imagination, yet Hippolyta reminds him that ‘all the story of the night told over, /And all their minds transfigured so together, /More witnesseth than fancy’s images...’ Something real and important, then, has occurred.

 

The mechanicals strive for dramatic realism and fall laughably short—yet their failure actually draws attention by contrast to the triumphant success of the play as a whole in seducing the audience into that ‘willing suspension of disbelief...which constitutes poetic faith’ (Coleridge).

 

Notes by Perry Keenlyside

 

 

The Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

Theseus, Duke of Athens  Jack Ellis

Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons            Karen Archer

Lysander, in love with Hermia      Benjamin Soames

Demetrius, suitor to Hermia         Jamie Glover

Hermia, in love with Lysander      Cathy Sara

Helena, in love with Demetrius    Emily Raymond

Oberon, King of the Fairies           Michael Maloney

Titania, Queen of the Fairies         Sarah Woodward

Puck, in the service of Oberon      Ian Hughes

Peter Quince, a carpenter  John Moffatt

Nick Bottom, a weaver        Warren Mitchell

Francis Flute, a bellows-maker    Peter Kenny

Tom Snout, a tinker Don McCorkindale

Snug, a joiner; Egeus, father of Hermia David Timson

Starveling, a tailor; Philostrate, Master of the Revels   John Rye

Fairy, in the service of Titania        Daisy Donovan

Fairies attending on Titania:

   Peaseblossom     Emma Lindars

   Cobweb      Sophie Nakhimoff

   Moth Laura Sheldon

   Mustardseed         Dominic Kraemer

 

JACK ELLIS (Theseus) has played Orsino in Twelfth Night

and Horatio in Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as many other Shakespearean roles for theaters across Great Britain. His television appearances include Wycliffe, Beck, Prime Suspect and The Knock and his film credits include A Dangerous Man and Didn’t You Kill My Brother?

 

KAREN ARCHER (Hippolyta) has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Nicholas Nickleby and as Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, as well in plays such as Ghosts, She Stoops to Conquer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her television appearances include The Chief, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Casualty and Chancer and she has been seen in the films The Secret Garden and Forever Young.

 

BENJAMIN SOAMES (Lysander) trained at LAMDA. Since then he has appeared in the TV series Sharpe and Absolutely Fabulous as well as the TV films Heavy Weather and England, My England. His theater credits include Measure For Measure.

 

JAMIE GLOVER (Demetrius) trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and has since played title roles in Hamlet and Henry V and a number of other roles in, amongst others, Tartuffe and The Rose Tattoo for Sir Peter Hall. His TV appearances include A Dance to the Music of Time and Cadfael.

 

CATHY SARA (Hermia) has worked for the New Shakespeare Company in The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, as well as the Stephen Joseph Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse and King Lear at the Hackney Empire. Her television appearances include Kavanagh QC, Beck, The Detectives and Heartbeat, and she has worked extensively for the BBC Radio Repertory.

 

EMILY RAYMOND (Helena) has played Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as a number of other roles in plays such as The Changeling, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Beggar’s Opera. For other theaters she has appeared in Romeo and Juliet, The Seagull, and Of Mice and Men. Her TV credits include Robin Hood and Highlander and her film credits, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Murder of Quality.

 

MICHAEL MALONEY (Oberon) has worked extensively for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, and in the West End, in taking leading roles such as Romeo, Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Peer Gynt and Hamlet. He is also active in film, and is known for his roles in Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Henry V and In the Bleak Midwinter.

 

SARAH WOODWARD (Titania) joined the Royal Shakespeare Company after leaving RADA and has since appeared in many Shakespearean roles including Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Other theater credits include The Sea, Kean and Wild Oats.

 

IAN HUGHES (Puck) has played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as other roles in King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, The Venetian Twins and numerous other plays. His TV credits include Death of a Salesman, Survivor’s Guide and Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

 

JOHN MOFFATT’S (Peter Quince) distinguished theater career encompasses two hundred roles across the UK, 42 major London productions and two Broadway appearances. He has played Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park, appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s production of Hedda Gabler and in Married Love directed by Joan Plowright. Film credits include Prick Up Your Ears. He has also been seen on UK TV in Love in a Cold Climate

and Maigret.

 

WARREN MITCHELL (Nick Bottom) is well known for his performance as Alf Garnett in the TV series Till Death Us Do Part and In Sickness and In Health. He has also played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Royal National Theatre (a role he later recreated for the BBC), and the title role in King Lear at the Almeida Theatre. He has worked extensively in theater in Australia where his credits includes The Homecoming, Uncle Vanya and Hello Dolly.

 

PETER KENNY (Francis Flute) trained at RADA and his various Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, The Orange Tree and other theaters across Great Britain, have included Feste in Twelfth Night and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. He has also worked extensively for the BBC Radio Drama Company.

 

DON McCORKINDALE (Tom Snout) has performed numerous leading roles during a theater career, which has taken him all over the world. His roles have included Prospero in The Tempest and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Other plays include Shiver Breathing at the Royal National Theatre and The Mousetrap in London’s West End. His TV credits include Edwin Drood and Coronation Street and he often records for BBC Radio.

 

DAVID TIMSON (Snug/Egeus) has performed in modern and classic plays across the world, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. He has been seen on TV in Nelson’s Column and Swallows and Amazons, and in the film The Russia House.

 

JOHN RYE (Starveling/Philostrate) has performed in The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, Henry VI and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in London’s West End, as well as The Comedy of Errors for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His television appearances include The Bills and Spycatcher.

 

DAISY DONOVAN (Fairy) trained at LAMDA where she performed in a number of productions including Barbarians, Twelfth Night and The Duchess of Malfi.

EMMA LINDARS (Peaseblossom), SOPHIE NAKHIMOFF (Cobweb), LAURA SHELDON (Moth) and DOMINIC KRAEMER (Mustardseed) are members of The Finchley Children’s Music Group in London.

 


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