There is a line in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Theseus says, “For never anything can be amiss/When simpleness and duty tender it.” While watching the production of this play at Hart House Theatre last night, I found myself wishing that the director, Jeremy Hutton, had heeded these wise words. I think that Hutton is a very talented young man and that he shows much promise as a director, but he has the tendency to cram so much into a production that it becomes so bogged down with everything that the essence of the play gets lost in the crowd. On a purely superficial level, this production is very funny and teeming with boisterous energy that never lags for a moment. There was much that I admired, particularly in the First Act, but as the play progressed I found that it all descended into complete chaos and mockery purely for the sake of mockery and chaos.
Jeremy Hutton has a brilliant concept for this show, which made it all the more frustrating to watch him allow it to run so wildly away from him. He set his Athens in Victorian London and his vision for the fairies was that of a band of gypsies living on the fringes of society. The costumes by Nicole Miller and the fantastic set design, particularly an exquisite gypsy caravan, by Brandon Kleiman, set the perfect tone of both dreary, smoggy London and the magical world of the outsiders. Lysander and Demetrius were suddenly transformed into two dapper Victorian gentlemen, presumably rivals at Eton, and Hermia and Helena became two ladies smothered in the propriety of an exceptionally patriarchal world. The connections between Victorian London and Athens in Antiquity are rich and fascinating and I was excited to see what creative perceptions that Hutton would offer in the exploration of this choice. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the only things onstage even remotely resembling the Victorian Era were the set and the costumes.
As Susan Bond states in her Dramaturgy notes in the Hart House Theatre Programme, “the forest is identified as a place of permissiveness” and theatre practitioners and scholars alike generally see that Shakespeare has set up two distinct worlds in this play, and one is able to subvert the conventions of the other. In this way, I liked the idea that the characters in such a repressed society would be given the chance to run wild among gypsy trickery in the woods. Yet, Hutton squandered the potential power of his concept by firstly not rooting his characters firmly enough in Victorian society while in Athens, and then allowing all Hell to break loose the moment they set foot in the forest. Shakespeare’s text makes it very clear that simply being in the woods is not enough to alter the lovers’ sense of Athenian values, as Hermia tells Lysander, “But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy/ Lie further off, in human modesty; Such separation as may well be said/Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid,/So far be distant; and good night, sweet friend./Thy love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!” It seemed drastically anachronistic then for Hutton to have his Victorian Hermia and Lysander touching one another so provocatively, and rolling over each other’s bodies in a way that any self-respecting Victorian woman would blush in horror at the very thought. In the same way, Helena’s entrance was marked with a temper tantrum, an unleashing of passions that made me certain that her corset was not laced nearly tight enough. However weakly the distinction between Victorian Athens and Gypsy wood was made at the beginning of the play, it completely disappeared at the end, when instead the mechanicals brought all their bawdy, farcical, sexually charged-and almost explicit- energy back to the court of the King, in a performance I can’t imagine delighting Queen Victoria or King Edward.
There were some great performances amid the chaos. Andy Cockburn created a beautiful Lysander, filled with light and impish charm. His mastery of the Shakespearean language was unparalleled. He spoke with such earnest clarity, utterly simple and from the heart. Even Cockburn stretched a bit beyond the extremes by the end of the play, but I found that his comic timing was mostly on pitch and occurred only once he had been charmed by Puck’s flower. The Mechanicals were initially so delightful and charming that it was a pity when they spiraled into the cheapest of frat boy humor as though Hutton were trying to turn Pyramus and Thisby into Jerry Springer The Opera. The charm of Shakespeare is that all the homoerotic and the sexual innuendo are there, cleverly embedded in the text. Draining it of all its subtly destroys the craftiness of the language, and ruins the joke. Shakespeare had to be shrewd to evade the censors of his time, in the same way that writers like Oscar Wilde had to do the same in the Victorian period. I would have liked to see this reflected in Hutton’s production. Regardless, William Jennings was particularly hilarious as Flute, who made a particularly elegant Thisby, Neil Silcox was also entreating as Bottom and Thomas Gough made a very fine Peter Quince. Carly Chamberlain’s Helena would have benefited the most from Hutton pulling her exuberance back. She is very funny, but when Helena is portrayed as a love crazed psycho from the onset, it is difficult for the audience to have any empathy for her. Similarly, Kevin McGarry’s Oberon and Andrew Dundass’ Theseus had all this unbridled rage, not rooted in any one specific thing, which made Puck seem masochistic, while Hippolyta proved the most boring and subservient of Amazonian Queens. If only Hippolyta could have been portrayed akin to George Eliot or George Sand)! The relationships between Oberon and Titania and Theseus and Hippolyta were nowhere near rich and complex enough, especially with the context of Victorian London and Gypsy world.
None of the actors onstage were lacking in talent, although some wielded the language far better than others, but they all went too far to the extremes far too soon and were left in the middle of Act I with nowhere else to go.
In the same way, with its motivation and concept recklessly abandoned, this production ran chaotically into the woods, leaving Shakespeare’s story lost somewhere in the fog.