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Directors Chris Abraham, left, and Peter Sellars in Straford, Ontario on July 13, 2014. The Stratford Festival is presenting two very different interpretations of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream this season by Sellars and Abraham; both of which are departures form the original play in many ways. (Peter Power for The Globe and Mail)
Directors Chris Abraham, left, and Peter Sellars in Straford, Ontario on July 13, 2014. The Stratford Festival is presenting two very different interpretations of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream this season by Sellars and Abraham; both of which are departures form the original play in many ways. (Peter Power for The Globe and Mail)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: One dream, two productions Add to ...

This summer, for the first time in its history, the Stratford Festival is presenting two different productions of the same play by William Shakespeare.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream appears on the Festival Theatre stage in a big, joyous, gender-bending production directed by Stratford regular Chris Abraham, and at the Stratford Masonic Concert Hall as an intimate, four-actor “chamber play” staged by avant-garde American director Peter Sellars.

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Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck brought together Abraham, the Siminovitch Prize-winning artistic director of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre, and Sellars, an internationally in-demand opera and theatre director and past recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” to meet one another for the first time, to dissect their Dreams and discuss the myriad life forms – royalty and pagan spirits; young lovers and amateur actors – who inhabit them.

J. Kelly Nestruck: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the most produced of Shakespeare plays – it’s certainly the one I have to review the most. What did you think when Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino proposed having not one, but two in the same season?

Chris Abraham: Antoni quite savvily asked me first if I wanted to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then said, “Oh, by the way. …” It certainly shaped the way I thought about engaging with the play. It highlighted the fact that there would be two interpretations. I support that idea: engaging an audience – and this audience – with the idea that Shakespeare writes these plays and that there isn’t one way to do them.

Nestruck: Peter, you had a conversation with Antoni about different possible projects. This four-person Dream is an idea you first explored in the 1980s?

Peter Sellars: It’s something I did really quickly when I was head of the Boston Shakespeare Company. They had a touring group of four actors who played small colleges all across the country, one-night stands doing scenes from Shakespeare, and I said, “We’re cancelling that.” The number four is helpful for Dream – so I said, we’ll do Dream and we’ll do a version so these four people will at least tour with a real Shakespeare play. All my life, I thought it was really interesting and I should go back and deal with it.

Nestruck: And how did you feel about having another Dream in town?

Peter Sellars: I was particularly thrilled, because anything that liberates Shakespeare from the idea of monoculture is to be applauded. So many people think there is a way to do it.

Nestruck: I have the advantage of having seen Chris’s production, which is framed as a performance of the play at the backyard wedding of two men. For yours, Peter, I only know what I’ve read online, that four actors will play two couples who “become gods, animals, demons, monsters, children, playthings and, finally, gradually, compassionate, honest, loving adults.”

Sellars: Very simply, the couples in every realm [of Shakespeare’s play] are mirrors of each other, so I thought let’s make them the same two couples all the way through. … We all know the relationship with your partner where you’re kings and queens, then the next moment you’re animals, and the next you’re hell-beings. I call it a “chamber play” in honour of August Strindberg’s chamber plays, his really intense portraits of marriage.

Nestruck: Chris, what was behind your decision to centre your Dream around a same-sex marriage – and also introduce gay and lesbian relationships into the play by changing the gender of Lysander and Titania?

Abraham: I found it hard to imagine doing this play without imagining it in the context of the world that I live in, the context of how I understand love and what it is, and how I understand marriage and what it is. I found the focus on the heterosexual relationships at the centre of the story limiting. It’s the connection for me of the prohibition of love and marriage [of Hermia and Lysander] at the beginning of the play and ultimately the reversal of that decision that Theseus makes on a dime. … That’s not a piece of bad dramaturgy, that’s that power of love in the play – the way in which love is more powerful than reason, than laws, than society.

Nestruck: Maybe I was naive, but it was surprising to me to learn that this is controversial – and that there were walk-outs from several American school groups early in the season.

Abraham: The last time I saw the show, I was sitting it the back row and somebody got up within a couple of minutes of the two guys kissing. He came back in after 10 seconds and said, “God have mercy on your souls,” quite loudly.

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