Year of Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Yohangza Theatre Company, Dir. Jung Ung Yang, Globe Theatre, 1 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Adele Lee, University of Greenwich

Contrary to most recent performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is nothing dark or sinister or indeed that grown-up about the Yohangza Theatre Company’s version, directed by Jung Ung Yang: one imagines this would appeal as much to kids as to adults, which is apt given the dual nature of the play, but also given South Korean culture’s predilection for cuteness (Kawaii). Performed in a mixture of Korean theatre styles, including song, dance, mime, acrobatics and martial arts, the production was vibrant, energetic and immensely enjoyable, and the cast did a great job of overcoming the language barrier and forming an excellent rapport with the predominantly English-language speaking audience. Effectively conveying ideas, events and emotions through music and movement, costume and facial expressions (the surtitles were barely needed), the small, multi-skilled and super-fit cast performed a substantially pared-down version of the source material, focusing only on the plight of the four lovers and the fairy king and queen’s marital problems.

The use of some English words and phrases also helped forge a bond with the spectators, but why every time a word in English was used it was met with quite such laughter and applause is a mystery. Perhaps the overreaction revealed a desire for more points of commonality and glimpses of the familiar? The reference to ‘fish and chips’ and ‘mushy peas’, which showed the company catering to a distinctively English sense of humour, unsurprisingly caused the loudest laugh of the evening, and no doubt contributed to the popularity of this already likeable cast.

But where does Shakespeare fit into all of this? And did the play provide any fresh insights into our understanding of Dream?

In this simplified version of the play Yang seems to borrow as much from his own culture and folklore as he does from Shakespeare. One of the most interesting aspects is the switch in gender roles, with Oberon/Gabi being the one punished by Titania/Dot for his habitual womanising. But as refreshing as it was to see Oberon being humiliated and as tempting as it is to interpret this as a feminist ‘take’ on the play, the female Bottom figure, an old herb collector called Ajumi, was humiliated to an extent that the male Bottom rarely is. Small, coarse and dithering, Ajumi was transformed by the Dokkebi (Korean forest sprites or goblins) into a pig, bringing to mind the infamous Renaissance ‘freak’, Tannakin Skinker – although in Eastern cultures the pig (traditionally associated with an unruly woman) possesses more positive connotations. Ajumi is subject to repeated ridicule and mortification, and at one rather discomforting point she urinates at length, centre stage, then proceeds to smear her face with the liquid (Dokkebi are supposedly repelled by the smell). Indicative of the slightly-too-crude nature of the humour, this also seems to be pandering to the (again, particularly Renaissance) belief that women are incontinent – figuratively and literally. In fact, Yang’s production could be accused of reinforcing many misogynistic stereotypes, both Eastern and Western, including the shrewish, scolding wife. Yet it’s all handled with too light a touch to be ever regarded as offensive.

The typically rather nondescript lovers perhaps present a more progressive attitude towards gender. Dressed, at first, in primary colours – red, yellow, blue and green, which symbolise distinct personality traits – Hermia/Byock, Demetrius/Hang, Helena/Eeck and Lysander/Rue proceed to lose their individuality in the forest where they are now all attired in white, unisex outfits. This also, according to Korean culture, symbolises that they are at harmony with nature, and have reverted to a state of innocence. The loss of distinction between the almost identically dressed members of this quartet, who move in a beautifully synchronised fashion, perpetuates a collapse in gender difference.  The men are graceful, elegant and Rue even brandishes a fan, while the women are equally elegant but strong and assertive. Their freedom from the heavy, ornate makeup and costumes of the Dokkebi, interestingly, further signifies that they are perhaps less tradition-bound and more modern, liberated figures.

Another particularly interesting and wonderful aspect of this play is its splitting of the character Puck into the twin spirit Duduri, played by the mesmerising Jin Lee and Seong-Yong Han, both of whom arguably stole the show – and this was definitely more show, more spectacle, than narrative drama. Duduri, Dot’s naughty little brother, successfully embodied the comic, festive elements of Dream and played tricks on the audience as well as on members of the cast. Making full use of the playing space, the dual character made several ventures into the yard (I myself had the privilege/embarrassment of gaining its attentions) and often perched smugly on the upper stage, reflecting its puppeteer-like power to control and laugh at the fates of others. Evidence of how much the duo cast a spell over the audience was the never-ending curtain call and the long queue that formed in the foyer post-show for photographs with them. Maybe this signifies an attempt to capture the metatheatrical nature of the ‘original’, but it seemed to me that these actors clearly relished their roles and genuinely didn’t want to relinquish them. The audience seemed to agree. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen spectators leave in such high spirits.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

 

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

 

Want to know what other audience members thought about this production? Listen below to interviews with some of them:

Listen below to an interview with the creative producer, recorded by the Globe Education Department:

 

Here’s what others are saying about the performance:

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Author:Adele Lee

Adele Lee is lecturer in English Literature at the University of Greenwich, after receiving a PhD from Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2009. She is the author of numerous articles on Shakespeare, Postmodern Appropriation, and Renaissance travel writing, and has published works in Shakespeare Bulletin, Early Modern Literary Studies and Quidditas, among others. She is currently completing a book for Fairleigh Dickinson University Press entitled The English Renaissance and the Far East: Cross-Cultural Encounters.
  • http://twitter.com/_erinsullivan_ Erin Sullivan

    Thanks Adele for a really helpful discussion and analysis of the production, and to Sarah too for an interesting comparative perspective. I just finished watching the South Korean Dream online at The Space, and found it very enjoyable – the music, dance, and physical comedy gave a non-Korean speaker a lot to watch and engage with. I was really interested in the way they cut and adapted Shakespeare’s source play – no parents, no mechanicals, no nobles, just four lovers, a band of other-worldly spirits, and a herb lady. Like you Adele I was particularly struck by the role swapping between the Titania and Oberon characters. My first instinct was to think about this choice from a modern/feminist point of view so it was really interesting for me to listen to the Globe’s interview with the creative producer and to learn that they saw it as a way of making the story work better from what he calls a more traditional Korean perspective – traditionally, he says, women don’t chase men, men chase women. This makes me think again about what Shakespeare is doing by putting Titania in the chaser role – on the one hand I suppose it can be seen as humiliating but on the other it allows the character / actor playing the character to work in a very assertive, active mode at least for a little while. One thing I wasn’t sure about in the S. Korean production is whether or not there was supposed to be some sort of language or communication divide between the Oberon character and the herb / pig lady. The Duduri characters seemed to be acting as translators for them at one point and we got a lot of the English phrases you spoke of here. Not sure what exactly was going on, but definitely found it interesting!

  • Sarah Olive

    I saw En midsummer nattsdrØm at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen last night – http://www.fib.no/en/Programme/?TLp=569136. It was interesting to note that although, like your Dream, it was part of an international festival, it made no concession to the commonality or familiarity you discuss here. There were no English synposes or programmes, and the frequent code-switching to English phrases was still defamiliarising – as the production was using a free-wheeling Norwegian translation with plenty of improvisation, I rarely knew what the context of these bursts of English was. My feeling of estrangement from the speech, but
    also sometimes action, of this production brought to me a new awareness of the huge extent to which companies
    involved in the World Shakespeare Festival had worked to use gesture, music,
    colour – a panoply of non-verbal devices – to (by and large) successfully connect with their audiences.
    Another point of difference was the tone – you mention the absence of the sinister in this Globe to Globe production. Whereas, in Bergen, the sinister or ‘noir’ was still well and truly alive: for fairies the production had pole dancers in
    white satin G-strings; for Bottom’s asses’ head there was a boar’s head (accompanied by the actor breaking into Richard III’s ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’); a rambling, drunken, exacerbatedly self-pitying Helena; the forest changed from soft, serene green to spiky,
    dark and tempestuous at Titania’s whim.Titania was costumed and made up in a way that
    connoted (for me, at least) Queenie from Blackadder,
    her voice (filtered through an echoey microphone) was that of Darth Vader. She
    was not beautiful, flirtatious, or womanly, but commanding nonetheless. She was
    in control of Puck to the extent that a hoarse whisper from her would silence
    him, wresting his microphone from his hands to hers as though by magnetic
    power. Her passionate clinches hurt Puck, who unfailingly exclaimed ‘oww’ upon
    release from her arms.The final dark note was added by the rendering of the mechanical’s play: calling for apocalyptic classical music from the
    decks that had been used to provide bits of soundtrack throughout, the
    mechanicals (markedly fewer than in most dramatis personae for the Dream) performed Pyramus and Thisbe wearing the
    Guy Fawkes’ masks made popular in the V
    for Vendetta comic, waving one European and one anarchist flag, and chanting the lines in unison – connoting news footage of recent protests in Athens. The final point to make in this comparison might be that Dream at the Globe sounded entirely more coherent than that at Den Nationale Scene, which felt like it was trying too hard to cram in every possibile postmodern theatrical device.

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