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.
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.