A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play (Stratford Festival) @ Stratford, Ontario, Canada, 27 July 2014.
Reviewed by Jill L. Levenson (University of Toronto)
Peter Sellars, practitioner and teacher of many performing arts, has brought his remarkable skill- set to Canada three times over the past two years. Initially, he energized two Canadian Opera Company productions, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (in February 2013) and George Frederic Handel’s Hercules (in April 2014). Currently, his piece A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play holds one stage at the Stratford Festival (July 24th to September 20th). For the first time in its history, the Festival has two versions of the same Shakespeare play in performance at the same time. Chris Abraham’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream appears at the Festival Theatre (May 31st to October 11th), an experimental treatment of the full text. Sellars, parent and original of a completely innovative rendering, plumbs uncharted depths in the original play.
Festival publicity encourages ticketholders to think about A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play before setting foot in its venue. For example, what does the title mean? In an interview published by The Globe and Mail a day before opening night, Sellars explained: “I call it a ‘chamber play’ in honour of August Strindberg’s chamber plays.” He refers to half a dozen scripts written for performance in the small experimental Intimate Theatre launched in Stockholm by Strindberg with the young actor August Falck in 1907. According to Strindberg’s Letters to the Intimate Theatre (1911-21), chamber plays transfer the idea of chamber music to the drama: “intimate approach, significant theme, careful treatment.” Sellars may also have had in mind A Dream Play (published 1902, produced 1907), a dramatic narrative governed by dream logic in which, as Strindberg’s preface states: “The characters split, double, multiply, vanish, intensify, diffuse, and disperse.” Ordinary time and place do not exist.
Even without a specific reference to Strindberg, Sellars’s title suggests a musical analogue and a kind of intimacy not often associated with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s early romantic comedy which weaves four plotlines from a vast array of sources into a single dramatic narrative. Another clue to the uniqueness of this Stratford Festival production came in an email under instructions for “Planning Your Visit.” Emphasizing the importance of the venue, the message invited audience members to arrive early, allowing time to explore the new performance space, Stratford’s Masonic Concert Hall, transformed for this production. With the houselights on, viewers can see all sorts of everyday items attached to the entire ceiling, along with some leaning against the walls: for example, chairs, an ironing board, doors, poles, eaves-troughs, a wheel. For a number of spectators, certain items hold particular meaning. A Festival concierge recognized contributions from her garage; Richard Ouzounian has identified chairs from the original Stratford tent in 1953 (see his Star review, July 25th). Underneath the items, also extending across the entire ceiling, what looks like tin foil captures the light, which turns red at points and then disappears in the blackouts that precede and end the action. The items above and around the audience might represent the domestic images which furnish our dreams. Whatever their symbolism, they become more and more apparent under observation before the lights go out and the challenge of discerning features of the theatrical environment increases to take in the stage.
When the action begins, the performance space functions as an extension of the auditorium: both actors and spectators exist in a spectrum of light that ranges from dim to dark. The lighting on stage makes it difficult to distinguish the actors’ facial expressions or details of their costumes. It varies subtly from red to green and violet to gray. Accompanying these effects, sound rumbles beneath the dialogue, more or less intensely, like ocean waves. Together sound, light, and refurbished venue create an ambience in which dream-work might occur. The artists who produced this impression – Abigail DeVille (set and installation), James F. Ingalls (lighting), Tareke Ortiz (sound) – are making their debuts at the Stratford Festival. With their director, they have given a familiar Shakespeare comedy an edge of the avant-garde.
Before the second performance began, Sellars told me that he intended to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream as audiences had never before experienced it. He aimed to rid the play of all its associations from previous performances and operas. In the process, he meant to capture the “texture” of dream: the incoherence of the memory which results on waking up, when we recall to different degrees only segments of the dream narrative. To these ends he streamlined Shakespeare’s four plots and two dozen characters to 105 minutes of uninterrupted engagement among four actors. As he writes in the program, further explicating A Chamber Play: “We’re playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream not with an orchestra but with a string quartet.”
Similar to Strindberg’s characters who split, double, and multiply, those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play constantly undergo metamorphoses. Sarah Afful and Dion Johnstone deliver the lines of two Athenian couples, in addition to those of Puck, Bottom the weaver, and the lovers in the Mechanicals’ play; Trish Lindström and Mike Nadajewski play another couple, supernatural figures, and roles subordinate to Pyramus and Thisbe in the performance at court. With scrupulous cutting, much of Shakespeare’s text remains in the script, even lyrical set pieces which fail to advance the plot – Titania’s story of the changeling child, Oberon’s of the magic flower – but widen the context of Shakespeare’s comedy beyond the obsessed citizenry of Athens. The audience should hear every word because Sellars uses soft microphones as film uses close-ups. In this otherwise strenuous production the actors can whisper their most emotional lines. The performance flows like a stream-of-consciousness impression of Shakespeare’s comedy generated by two couples in the process of discovering themselves. Despite touches of context, exchanges among the couples take place at no specific time and in no specific place.
Sellars conceived of this production three decades ago and directed a version at his Boston Shakespeare Company. When Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino invited him to the Stratford Festival, Sellars told him about this production with two men and two women playing all the parts; and in the end Sellars’s youthful experiment became his mature work of art. A former classmate of Sellars at Harvard posted on the Web an “Open Letter to Director Peter Sellars, Wherever You Are,” May 25, 2007, in which she describes the early version with eloquence as “a flickering dream made visible, one long, unified poetic text being woven into theatrical action.” Addressed to the writer Ron Rosenbaum, the letter concludes: “I would give almost anything to see that Dream of Sellars again.” I’ve forwarded a copy to Sellars, who had never read this tribute; and I hope the author fulfils her wish to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play, this latest version of Sellars’s Dream. Using Rosenbaum’s terminology, she calls the first production “the secret play” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Cimolino describes the latest incarnation as “a thrilling X-ray through Shakespeare’s text.” In watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play, a spectator’s recollections of Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production in a white box or Benjamin Britten’s opera in a dark wood may not disappear completely; but such passing impressions should enhance a sense of Sellars’s original artistic vision.
Jill L. Levenson is professor emerita of English at the University of Toronto, where she taught since receiving her PhD from Harvard. Her main research interest is early modern drama, especially Shakespeare; and her secondary field is modern drama. As chair of the International Shakespeare Association (ISA), she convened international Shakespeare conferences in Brisbane (2006) and Prague (2011). She is now an honorary vice president of the ISA, and she is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.