During the spring term, I directed a group of students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, within the framework of a course I regularly teach here at Lund University, in a bid to combine academic work with the sheer joy of experiencing Shakespeare’s plays on stage. Like Puck, the students get to be both auditors and actors, filling in for each other when someone is absent during rehearsals, and they usually end up knowing pretty much the whole play by heart. The stage production, before an audience, is actually their ‘viva’, although the grading is done on the written work they also produce for me during the term. The students work incredibly hard, and by the end of the course, they are always astonished at how far they have come, and how rewarding it is working with Shakespeare’s texts and characters.
Our play took place at Lund’s Open-Air Museum of Cultural History. It was a promenade performance, taking audience and actors through the entire park: The grand steps up to an 18th-century manor house became our Athens, a cobble-stone courtyard was home to the artisans, a knot-garden became our knee-high labyrinth where Lysander and Demetrius chased each other, and the park itself was the gorgeous backdrop of fairy shenanigans and confused lovers.
Our rehearsals on location were rendered interesting by the unusually unreliable weather; Titania and Oberon were forever told off by the rest of the cast because they must have been bickering again, causing the seasons to alter. We frequently had to scramble for cover inside the old wooden crofts when there was a shower of rain, a thunderstorm, or even (on one memorable occasion) hail. Yes, I’m afraid someone did say ‘Hail, gentle mortal’; this course has a way of obliterating original thinking, and misapplied Shakespeare quotations are legion. When a duck from one of the ponds took to following us around, bullying us for food, it was periodically told off with ‘Tarry, rash wanton’ (2. 1. 62); and when a casual visitor to the park came too close to the cradle of the Fairy Queen while speaking loudly and obliviously in his mobile phone, the ironic message from the group was ‘I am invisible / And I will overhear their conference’ (2. 1. 186-7).
I recently began looking into how Shakespeare’s plays and the theatre in general have been used in schools and universities in Sweden in the past, and was delighted (as well as brought down a peg or two) by finding how many predecessors I had.
A couple of examples: already in 1610, the Head Master Magnus Olai Asteropherus wrote En lustig comedia vid namn Tisbe (A Merry Comedy Named Thisbe) for his schoolboys; the play is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, not on Shakespeare, but in its comic aim it certainly seems closer to the rude mechanicals’ version of the story (the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to the play as ‘the Ralph Roister Doister of Swedish literature’). And in Umeå in Northern Sweden, one dedicated teacher in the 1960s produced a Lapp version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with her pupils, with Puck as a hissing mountain lemming.