Being a Production Photographer has its moments – this is my favourite image from The Dream in Cambridge, 2012.
Ponytail Shakespeare read-through: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V.
One of the things about a project like this read-through it that it gives you a certain discipline. In this case, although my timetable may be only notionally followed, it has forced me to read or re-read plays that I might not have, otherwise. Occasionally (Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m looking at YOU), my reservations have been fully justified. On other occasions, this new-found steel in my soul has been intensely rewarding. I might not otherwise have read the Henry VI plays, for example. Or, indeed, re-read The Dream in any hurry (believing I knew it ‘well enough’), and that would have been a shame …
As I’ve indicated elsewhere, this is a play I choose not to teach, preferring Much Ado for little minds (Y8) rather than getting their heads round the more ornate language of this one, and the inevitable and sometimes insurmountable confusion about Hermia / Helena. Which, when you yourself have 200+ names and faces to remember every year can become quite frustrating. Anyway, instead, we use Pyramus and Thisbe as part of a general Shakespeare introduction designed to get the youngest pupils (Y7) interested and entertained.
And then I largely forget the play. AND the fact that I have seen it performed outdoors (which is its natural home) on five occasions, thrice as Production Photographer (see above). How could I do that?
This re-read, therefore, came as such a welcome palate-cleanser after my recent bitter draught of LLL, and I was reminded just how funny the play is, even when it’s not being mangled by 11-year-olds.
I’m so sorry, I took you for granted …
To Act V, then. Harold F Brooks calls the play-within-the-play:
‘the more developed successor of the show of the Nine Worthies in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It is received, as that was, with mocking commentary, which, however, is not ill-natured, so that without incongruity, the magnanimous key of Theseus’ anticipatory comment can be recovered in his congratulation at the end.'
and this is bang on, I think. It’s pure joy, from the moment Peter Quince comes on to speak his Prologue:
QUINCE: If we offend, it is with our good will.  (V.i.108)
and I’m chuckling at the potential for it to do precisely what it’s trying to avoid: cause offence. When Lysander remarks:
He hath rid his prologue like a rough colt; he knows
not the stop. (V.i.119-120)
I’m back in the classroom, ‘chewing’ Shakespeare again, smiling in recollection of productions of Pyramus and Thisbe I have known in C5.
The most memorable of the productions I’ve seen is probably the 2013 one at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, where we had Quince in the background agonising over every amateurish mistake the Mechanicals made. In the image below you can see him on the right (played by Ian Pink), despairing as Bottom (Eddie Beardsmore) shuffles of this mortal coil:
‘Now die, die, die, die, die.’ [Dies.] (V.i.295)
That line always raises a smile with me, whether I read it or hear it.
Just when Quince believes that they’re all consigned to the stocks – or worse – for the paucity of their performance, the ‘royal assent’ transforms him into a hero:
and Ian really earned this!
If Pyramus’s is the funniest death in the Shakespeare canon, then Thisbe’s isn’t too far behind. Whilst I’m digging out photos, here’s one from the 2014 production, Thisbe played by John Bolitho-Jones:
‘Tongue, not a word:
Come, trusty sword,
Come, blade, my breast imbue! [Stabs herself.] (V.i.329-331)
Overall, this is probably the most meta-theatrical of the plays. Characters manipulate each other to create a web of mini-dramas, and almost every piece of action in the play (yet again, like The Tempest) has an eavesdropping audience, themselves unwittingly spied on by us, until Puck breaks the fourth wall once and for all in his Epilogue. That final plea is just as heartfelt as Quince’s – if less open to misinterpretation.
I didn’t want to leave the play without thinking about why it’s so popular, especially with children and – dare I say, people who had blessed childhoods. And to wonder whether it will still retain that special place in the hearts of audiences which means that annual Shakespeare festivals like the Cambridge one make it the only play performed every year.
Hippolyta. This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
Theseus. The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst
are no worse, if imagination amend them. (V.i.207-209)
IMAGINATION: that’s the key. The Dream requires and rewards that suspension of disbelief – the one that earlier I said found it easier to believe in fairies than Helena’s self-harming betrayal. Those of us whose childhoods have been filled with the joy of reading, and indeed of theatre find it easier to do this, I think. We enjoy using our imagination. I fear, though, for today’s youngsters, who so seldom have to use that imagination in any of the cultural constructs they so passively consume. In the classroom, we see that when they describe imaginative tasks as ‘hard work’. There might be a time when The Dream falls out of fashion, and that would be not just a shame, but a symptom of a wider malaise in our society …
Anyway, in a moment, I’m going to count down from three and then click my fingers. When I do that, you’re going to wake up, and it will all have been a pleasant dream.
Three … two … one … click!
_ _ _
 ‘Introduction’, Harold F. Brooks, in William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden Second Edition), ed. Harold F. Brooks, (London: Methuen Drama, 2007), p.lxxxvi.
 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden Second Edition), ed. Harold F. Brooks, (London: Methuen Drama, 2007), IV,i,41-44. All future references given in the body of the text.
Abel Guerrero, ‘Wakey, Wakey: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V’, The Boar’s Head, East Cheap, http://www.boarsheadeastcheap.com[accessed Day Month Year].