Coming into this play on July 31st, I had no idea what to expect. My mind was subsequently taken to its darkest corners by a play I was used to thinking of as light and airy. This is certainly a hard one to review, as I don’t believe I fully understood it myself, however I’m going to do my best. Here are my initial thoughts about the play.
In regards to the set and the initial feel of the space, it was certainly an immersive and estranging experience. First of all, to be at the Masonic Hall in Stratford and not one of the four main stages was immediately alienating for me. I didn’t know where I was going or where to sit like at the other plays. Then as I walked in, there is this huge art instillation all over the room that we as the audience become a part of. With almost exclusively metallic materials and aluminum foil as a base, it certainly gave us something to look at before the show began although I am still puzzled as to why she chose all of those objects in particular and what significance the metallic room had. However the set onstage was rather plain and it was difficult to figure out exactly where we were supposed to be. To me, it looked like some kind of sanatorium or mad house. The walls were bare, and there were no windows and only one door. The walls looked as if they had been scratched over and over again by the inhabitant. It felt like they were in this super sanitary environment while we sat amongst chaos. It was absolutely fascinating even before they spoke a single word.
There were four actors in the play, Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindström and Mike Nadajewski. All of them truly performed exceptionally well. I did find it was interesting that the four people shared the stage, when it looked like a solitary confinement room. I was mesmerized by them. This was a huge play to attempt with only four people, but the text was cut down well to accommodate the size of the cast. The dialogue was absolutely fluid. They could change time, place and characters and yet there was no break in their words. For me, I was able to keep up because I know the play well. However, for someone who does not know the play well, this would have been extremely confusing. And while some characters have been cut out of the play, it never seemed to inhibit the flow of dialogue or the story itself. What was odd for me was the random outbursts the characters had. I felt like they would scream dialogue that didn’t require such an emotional response. And then the stand under our seats would rumble whenever one of these outbursts happened, which was scary, but also made us part of their seeming madness. To me, it seemed like the words they said were not as significant as how they said them. They could say nice things in a negative tone or negative things in a pleasant tone. I was confused. However what was interesting was how the feelings and emotions that each person had carried through to each character. While this was troubling in some case, (like why is Hermia seemingly in love with Demetrius? Was she supposed to be someone else and I missed the change?) it did make for some interesting scenes, particularly in the fairy world.
Puck’s final speech, a personal favourite, was of particular interest to me. This is generally thought to be spoken to the audience, and to ease our minds about the events that have just passed. However in this interpretation Puck (played by Afful) said the speech to the other players, and not the audience. It was like it was their minds who may have been disturbed or offended by the events that just took place. It was very avant-garde but also added to that estranging feeling that pervaded the play.
It was fascinating to me how different a familiar play can be. I know this play well, and yet to see it told in this manner, so dark and deep into madness, I felt like I was watching something entirely new and different. I felt like I was in a daze like the lovers as I exited the theatre, and I’ve never heard a more quiet audience leaving a theatre. I think we were all a little mystified as to what we had just witnessed and been a part of.
Now, because of my lingering questions and puzzlement over this play, I’ve done something I so rarely do: read the directors notes on the play. Given what I’ve read, here are some new assessments of the play based on Peter Sellars’ notes.
I found that the notes were certainly not the key to unlocking the mystery of this play. While they did help a little, I had envisioned other possibilities than what Sellars talks about in his notes.
He says that the darkness of the forest creates the fear and uncertainty that he draws on in the play. This I understand, but at the same time it is only the four lovers that are uneasy in the forest, not anyone else, and especially not the fairies who inhabit the forest, yet this darkness presides over the entire play.
I like how he used the great chain of being to explain why there are multiple characters being played by one actor. That all of these levels of people are able to converge on one place in this play is quite amazing. However to me this is a thing to be celebrated, and is not a dark and scary thing.
He talks about the idea of cosmology, which in my mind invokes humoural theory. Prevalent in the renaissance, humoural theory posits that the whole world can be linked to the four elements, and that if a person is in perfect balance, they are one with the universe. If this was the approach that Sellars had have used for his characters, I think I would have been able to make more sense of the play; each character representing one of those humours and carrying that humour with them through all of the characters. He even mentions the fact that there being 4 of them is special in having a couple of couples, but doesn’t go as far as giving them any kind of designation, humoural or otherwise. Like I said, looking at the great chain of being for this play makes sense, but had he explained more about it in his notes, I think I would be able to fully grasp his ideas.
Personally, I feel like he picked up on this one, little explored aspect of the play, and then made it last through the whole play; over all of the tender, loving and happy moments there is darkness. I do understand that it was supposed to be an experimental play, but I don’t know how many patrons understand this when walking into the theatre, nor do we know the results from the performance. While it did have an effect on me, it certainly was not the one I expected. This is certainly not a traditional theatre experience, but for those who are interested in a new and unforgettable experience, this is the play to see!