A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Anna Bergmann for Malmö Stadsteater at Hipp, Malmö, Sweden. 15 April, 2014.
Reviewed by Kiki Lindell
In the 2014 Shakespeare Birthday Lecture in Stratford-upon-Avon, the director Michael Bogdanov spoke, among other things, about the delights and frustrations of directing in German theatres. Like Peter Brook, Bogdanov believes that we non-native speakers of English are lucky in being able to modernise Shakespeare’s texts in translation: ‘Shakespeare in translation is so much easier’, he said.
At the same time, he did acknowledge encountering difficulties working with especially German Shakespeare: ‘They think that [Shakespeare] is a German writer – that is the problem’, he said, with what seemed like both genuine love and mild exasperation. He had the whole auditorium laughing in recognition at the delightfully outrageous generalisation that ‘in the German theatre at the end of a play, the actors are all standing along the front of the stage, mostly naked and covered in mud’ (well, he used a different word for mud actually). I laughed most of all, for I believe I saw exactly that show the week before: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by the young controversial German director Anna Bergmann (described as ‘das explodierende Fräuleinwunder des deutschen Theaterbetriebs’ in Süddeutsche Zeitung). By the end of the play, the actors were all mostly naked, very wet, and covered in, not mud, but blood – for this, you see, was A Midsummer Night’s Dream set among vampires.
This could have worked, of course. Shakespeare’s plays usually survive whatever tough love is thrown at them, and trading one supernatural world for another (in the process attracting a new, young audience by flirting with contemporary pop culture) might have proved fruitful in more ways than one. But it was as though the director did not quite trust that this would be the case – had lost nerve midway, and instead piled altogether too many back-up devices on top of one another. Between the vampires (Oberon and Titania), the apocryphal extras (Ingmar Bergman, Lucy the long-suffering charwoman, August Strindberg – sporting tattoos, leather and a T-shirt saying ‘F–k Ibsen’), the sexual encounters of every conceivable variety and permutation (Lysander with Hermia, Hermia with Oberon, Oberon with a Muppet (sic), Oberon with Titania, Titania with Bottom, Helena – a transvestite – with Demetrius, Helena with Lysander), the cirque nouveau inflatable orbs, the hand-held video camera and on-stage video screens, the puppets, the charlady turning vampire, Bottom turning werewolf, everybody turning zombie for a Thriller-inspired dance, the ankle-deep water on the stage (people in the first row were issued protective pac-a-macs – echoes of the Globe here), Titania’s trapeze and fetish boots, more tennis balls than are lobbed at Henry V, and countless other brainwaves, there seemed very little Shakespeare left, and a great deal of tedium to fill out the void.
Lurking under this relentless barrage of novelty ideas was another, even graver problem: the language. For some reason – possibly because the director had brought along a couple of German actors and a German production team – a mixture of Swedish, German and English was spoken on stage. Some of the latter was actually Shakespeare’s own, but other bits were home-made, and very, very clunky. This seemed not so much a deliberate choice as an effect of the textual editor being indifferent to (or even unaware of?) the texture of Shakespeare’s language: ‘Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook’ is perfect blank verse. ‘Believe me, king of shadows, I made a mistake’ is not. Even on the occasions when Shakespeare’s exact words were used, our toes were not safe from being curled. If you do allow Lysander to say ‘Not Hermia but Helena I love/Who would not change a raven for a dove?’ it would surely be a good idea to get your ornithology right and make Hermia dark and Helena fair (or give the audience the sense that the contradiction is intentional); yet in this production, Hermia was platinum blonde while Helena’s tresses were raven black. That is, until they tore each other’s wig off in a catfight as vicious, as venomous, as veinous and as wet as anything I have ever seen on a stage; think Titus Andronicus meets Singin’ in the Rain.
Not everything was appalling. The puppetry was brilliant and did bring something rich and strange to the production. And the ensemble, hard-working, truly suffering for their art, deserve no part in the blame for this car-crash. But it is deeply worrying that one of Sweden’s major theatres does not believe in the power of Shakespeare, preferring instead to exsanguinate and dilute his play with plenty of water and various other, less appealing substances. True, if the production had worked, it might have brought in hordes of Generation Twilight/True Blood; even the grumpiest traditionalist would have had to applaud such a victory for live theatre. The problem is, it didn’t work; and I would be very surprised if anyone who was in the audience that night – young, aged, or merely in rapid decline, losing the will to live – will want to see a Shakespeare play ever again. I don’t think I would – that is, had I really believed that what we were shown was one.