A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dir. Theu Boermans, Het Nationale Toneel, Koninklijke Schouwburg The Hague, The Netherlands, 20 August 2016.
Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
One usually imagines the fairies in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as diminutive creatures, small enough to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (2.1.15). The Victorians saw them as childlike. Latterly, to stress the play’s raw eroticism, they have often been represented as over-sexed fertility spirits. In Theu Boermans’ production, however, they were neither: Titania’s train consisted of four middle-aged women in dowdy rain coats. Puck, too, was played by a not-so-young actress, Antoinette Jelgersma, as a somewhat dim-witted and reluctant servant to an overbearing Oberon, who occasionally twisted her arm to make her do his bidding. Not much joy or fertility was likely to emerge from such presiding deities.
Still, the young lovers and Titania, in particular, were ruled by their hormones, and acted out their impulses: Titania sat astride a sleeping Bottom after unbuttoning his fly, and Helena almost managed to win over Demetrius by offering her body to him. Lysander, in turn, undercut his claim that his switch from Hermia to Helena was based on reason (“things growing are not ripe until their season” 2.2.123) by looking at his groin while saying this. But lust was no guarantee for real love. Before long, the young lovers chased each other around the stage in their underwear. When they dressed again in the dark, they mistakenly donned the clothes of their designated partners. In the morning, Demetrius, wearing Helena’s red dress, greeted Theseus with a woman’s reverence. Confusion ruled, not merely where desire was concerned, but also in gender roles. The importance of that issue was highlighted by a sound clip from a business radio station, which asked whether the glass ceiling for women was real or existed only in their minds.
Theu Boermans’ production, a revival of that of 2011 but with a different cast, also foregrounded gender roles through the usual doubling of Theseus and Oberon, Hippolyta and Titania. Theseus was not a warrior but a modern businessman, who had just completed a hostile take-over of Hippolyta’s Amazon Group, and obtained his bride into the bargain. Hippolyta reluctantly acquiesced in this marriage of convenience, with the help of a lot of strong drink. Her impeccable business suit matched Theseus’s get-up, suggesting that they were both swayed by reason more than by emotion, but her obvious unhappiness also revealed the cost. Their equivalents in the fairy world represented traditional gender models. Oberon wore battle fatigues, and set about his revenge towards Titania with the help of night vision goggles, and pesticide spraying equipment to administer the magic juice. As a counterpart to this macho male, Titania was a sensuous blond goddess, dressed to reveal her curves like a fifties Hollywood actress. She gave free reign to her desire for ass-headed Bottom in her enchanted state, but felt disgusted with herself afterwards, and deeply puzzled by her experience. The last sight we caught of her was struggling in vain with Oberon over the changeling boy, who already wore a child’s version of Oberon’s battle dress.
Neither couple, traditional nor modern, seemed capable of overcoming the gender divide. The doubling of Titania and Hippolyta was foregrounded once more when, after the play-within-the-play, Hippolyta and Bottom inexplicably recognised each other and moved towards a kiss, before Theseus roughly pulled his consort away to the dance floor, claiming her as his property. The fact that Bottom, in his role as Pyramus, wore battle dress like Oberon, and goose-stepped like an East German soldier on parade, suggested the attractiveness of older, heroic models of masculinity even for modern career women, particularly unhappy ones.
If the adults had trouble negotiating their relationships, for the young lovers it was no easier. Hermia was an inexperienced school girl in short skirts and overlong stockings, given to fits of extreme emotion; Helena, her over-sexed school mate. Lysander and Demetrius , for once, were easy to distinguish: Demetrius owed Egeus’s favour to his neat appearance, promising higher prospects than those of his shabby-looking rival. But in the undressing, down to the underwear, all these distinctions were lost.
The mechanicals were cast as technicians involved in the preparations for Theseus and Hippolyta’s society wedding. While the audience were taking their seats, a huge party tent with long tables covered with white sheets was being readied. The women we later came to know as the fairies were busy laying the table. Meanwhile the mechanicals were cleaning the floor, installing the PR system, and performing various other menial tasks. All this was underscored by loud pop music with apposite lyrics, such as the Beatles’ ”Can’t buy me love.” Philostrate, a middle-aged woman, oversaw the proceedings like the manager of a party service. At the end of Act 1, Philostrate morphed into Puck in full view of the audience, while a thunder storm accompanied with hail (in fact, pieces of cork were used) sunk the party tent into the floor, levelling the playing floor into a pebble-strewn clearing in the forest. Visually very effective, this transformation was the first earnest of Puck’s magical powers, which belied her unglamorous and dim-witted appearance. At the return to the city, the reverse magic was performed: Puck raised her arms and the tent rose again, after all the cork had been swept off the top by the cleaning staff.
The mechanicals were, as usually, treated with a great deal of looseness, for laughs. Bottom spoke in the urban dialect of The Hague; Starveling was a Turkish immigrant simply known as Turk, who carried a huge half-moon on a stick that he laboriously lifted above his head when called upon. Their dramatic ineptitude in Act 5 did not prevent them from occasionally moving the inebriated courtiers, in particular Hippolyta, who seemed genuinely touched by the death of Pyramus. This seemed typical of the production, and one of its strong points: moments of utter farce quite suddenly revealed a serious undertone. Puck all alone spoke the benedictions on the three couples. The festive tables with white sheets now doubled as the beds, on which the lovers were already beginning their love-making. Yet Puck’s tone that boded evil rather than happiness, and she concluded with a slow, disillusioned rendering of an old pop song: ”Will you still love me tomorrow?” For a play where love seemed inextricably mixed up with lust and material considerations, and where tensions between partners needed to be drowned in alcohol, that seemed a very pertinent question indeed.