A Midsummer Night’s Dream/ Uda gau bateko ametsa/ Sueño de una noche de verano @ Cristina Enea Park, San Sebastián, Directors: Fernando Bernués & Iñaki Rikarte, Adaptor & translator: Patxo Telleria, Company: Tanttaka Teatroa
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jeffery
“Will you miss the wedding of the year?”
This year San Sebastián, Basque Country, is Europe’s Capital of Culture, along with Poland’s Wrocław. A year-long festival began in January, celebrating not only Basque culture but international cultures as artists of all medias from around the globe contribute their work both in the city and abroad under the flagship of the ‘Capitalidad’. The slogan of the festival is ‘Cultura para convivir’, which translates as ‘culture for coexistence’; much of the surrounding dialogue stresses the importance of the promotion of cultural ventures for a peaceful, stronger society. In a city with as turbulent a history as San Sebastián this advocacy is married to a strong desire to celebrate Basque culture that has had to overcome so much violence and attempts to subsume it.
Enter Shakespeare. Throughout history his figure and works have been engaged as missionaries of many causes. Here, his work is being employed as a herald of peace and the all-conquering power of love in Tanttaka Teatroa’s modernised production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This stunning piece of theatre has been tailor-made to fit perfectly the iconic setting of the Cristina Enea Park, combining theatre, dance, music, choral singing and gastronomy in a deeply harmonious way. It is quite something to see Dream performed in an actual forest, where fairies can quite literally creep out of the undergrowth, and this production capitalises on the new magical possibilities presented. Little scenery has been added to the already picturesque background: just a few important pieces of furniture indicate that we truly are in fairyland. As Puck emerges from a majestic wardrobe nestled under Cristina Enea’s oak tree and Titania goes to sleep on a giant bed that grows out of the ground we are indisputably in the home of the fairies.
After a sumptuous wedding feast, the audience begin their journey throughout the park passing in between two huge mirrors; in a moment strongly reminiscent of Alice melting through the looking glass, we are warned by Cristina Enea herself, regally embodied by Naiara Amedo, of the dangers of entering the wood where nothing is quite as it seems.
Instead of being invited to the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, however, we are the guests of Hermia (Aitziber Garmendia) and Demetrius (Gorka Otxoa). To give sharper focus to the lovers and their journey through the wood, Theseus, Hippolyta and Philostrate have been cut and replaced by the Duchess (Ane Gabarain) who is there to perform the marriage ceremony. The mechanicals have been given a contemporary twist and are four waiters (Ramon Agirre, Josean Bengoetxea, Mikel Laskurain, Jose Ramon Soroiz) at the wedding who volunteer their services to perform after the original acting company that were employed as a wedding gift to Hermia cancel last minute; ‘you can’t trust actors’, as Egeus (Isidoro Fernández) quips. These four have been given a much fairer share in terms of characterisation and lines, so it is not clear who is going to be transfigured, as they are all equally bumbling and equally funny, until one of them appears with a donkey’s head constructed of wicker and white paper with a light inside. In a further move of modernisation, Lysander has been remade as a female Lisandra (Miren Gaztañaga), heightening the already intense dramatic tension further as Hermia is about to say “I do” when she not only rejects Demetrius but simultaneously comes out. In this contemporary setting, when the neat symmetry of love that was conventional in Shakespeare’s time between a man and woman is no longer applicable, Lisandra and Hermia’s relationship fits well.
It is a night at the theatre unlike any other. All one’s senses are played upon as we are invited to partake of a feast that has been intricately planned to represent the various phases of falling in love: from the first glances and whispers for the starters, to enflamed passion for the main course to the sweet ‘madness’ of love for the dessert. All accompanied with copious amounts of wine.
This rather free adaptation operates on a grand scale: 140 cast and crew members work hard each night to feed, shepherd and entertain 250 audience members; the production runs for a month and offers ten performances in Basque and twenty in Spanish. What is potentially lost in the retraction of the poetry of Shakespeare’s original through the translation and the modernisation of language is more than made up for in the enchanting atmosphere, setting, and story that is retold. I say this is a free adaptation, not because the creative team have handled Shakespeare’s work with any disrespect, far from it. Loyalty to Shakespeare has been at the forefront of dramaturgical decisions, but this has been coupled with a need to adapt the play to fit the unique surroundings and a desire to modernise it for contemporary audiences. Moments of original text and verse punctuate the performance as a subtle echo to the past, and a treat for those perhaps more familiar with the play. Whilst the words have changed, the true spirit of Dream as a celebration of love and laughter is embodied fully throughout.
Layer upon layer of metatheatricality is added to the wedding cake in a most delicious way. The wedding invitations provided with the programme state that after dinner there will be a presentation of Dream. Demetrius’ announcement that the performance will have to be cancelled then causes a ripple of confusion throughout the crowd, as we are not sure whether he means the show itself or the performance that was supposed to round the evening off. Cue the waiters to step in and save the day. As they then head off into the forest to rehearse, one of them begins to read the beginning of Act One, scene two, the mechanicals’ first meeting; and as Hermia leaves at the end of the Act Two, scene two, the same waiter enters reading her last lines. They then proceed to rehearse the very scene we have just witnessed. Despite protestations from the Quince-esque character about respecting classic texts, the script is cut, quite literally by ripping the pages from the book, so that just the four lovers remain. Traces of the original mechanicals’ scenes can be seen threaded throughout the ensuing rehearsal: after arguing over who was going to play the female roles, and one of them threatening to leave having been cast as a man, similar word play and mistakes occur. After our long journey through the woods, the presentation of a truncated Dream in true mechanical style, as an extra layer to the metatheatricality that is production is already heavily imbued with, ends the evening on a joyous note. The oblivious wedding party laugh along with the audience as the waiters don improvised costumes, largely made of different vegetables, to enact the lovers’ story line from the original Dream, before Puck enters to deliver the epilogue.
Even Egeus cannot help but falling in love by the end of the night, such is the power of Oberon’s charm and the beauty of Tanttaka’s remade Dream. This production also marks the first professional outing of Shakespeare in Basque on the Basque stage, and it could not have been handled any more vibrantly or dynamically. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for Shakespeare in this bold corner of the Iberian Peninsula.