A colleague and I recently drove from Montpellier across the sheep-dotted Larzac plateau and over the Millau Viaduct (allegedly the world’s highest road-bridge) to Rodez. We had been invited to talk about A Midsummer Night’s Dream to pupils at the city’s Lycée Ferdinand Foch , which was founded two years, almost day for day, before Shakespeare’s birth, and renamed in honour of the World War One eponymous Marshal, a former pupil.
Candidates taking the national Baccalauréat examination, which opens access to higher education, had to study the play in a bilingual edition and give an oral presentation in English. Whereas Dream tends to be one of the first Elizabethan plays English pupils discover, their French counterparts discover Shakespeare after travelling through the classical canon of Molière, Racine and Corneille, that steers clear of intergeneric shifts between comedy and tragedy, or mythology and fantasy. Productions in recent decades have loosened up the classical format, but are usually performed on proscenium stages. Our presentation of the Globe came as a surprise, raising questions about the challenges of changing sets when there is no curtain.
None of them had seen a production of the play, whether on stage or screen. They were all, however, familiar with Romeo and Juliet. Working from the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes, drawing on reviews from Cahiers Élisabéthains and photographs, we discussed how directors staged the mechanicals staging the lovers’ deaths and how, although it was usually performed in a mock-heroic style, it could also be moving and reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Photographs of Tim Supple’s 2006 production tellingly illustrated this.
Why was Bottom changed into a donkey, and not some other creature? Why was the moon literalised onstage, why a dog, lantern and bush to represent the man in the moon? Why a man in the moon? Mythology and folklore may tap into the collective human psyche, they also have their local idiosyncrasies – which Shakespeare’s Dream enabled us to explore, laugh about and bridge. The pupils of Lycée Foch proved a delightful, active audience. Who said teenagers are blasé? Merci, Rodez!