It's fun listening to Julie Taymor getting worked up on the subject of Shakespeare. The 62-year-old director is talking on the phone about the new filmed version of her 2013 off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's fantastical comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which comes to Cineplex screens this Saturday and next Wednesday. The conversation turns to a familiar practice of doubling the roles of fairy and human characters.
"Well, everyone wants to save money but you can't possibly…" she starts. "Oberon and Titania are incredibly supernatural figures and you can see what we did with them. Oberon's the King of Shadows! They are not Theseus and Hippolyta. And many people say the four lovers are interchangeable. Not to me. Demetrius and Lysander are completely different characters. If you start by minimizing the depth of characters that Shakespeare wrote, well, there is no point!"
Let's be clear. Taymor's not adverse to tossing in a striptease and pillow fight in the middle of an Athenian forest, or having characters break into rap when the occasion suits it, but her aim is always about opening up, not reducing Shakespeare. From her experimental roots in mask and movement theatre, to multi-million-dollar Broadway productions like The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and films like Across the Universe and Frida, Shakespeare has been a constant in her career.
The Midsummer Night's Dream production is a result of Taymor's long association with New York's Theatre for a New Audience, a classics-focused company founded and run since 1979 by Jeffrey Horowitz (he originally financed the theatre with insurance proceeds from an apartment fire).
Back in 1984, Taymor, who had studied and worked in theatre in Japan, Bali and Indonesia, had done some costume and masks for a Theatre for a New Audience production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, presented to schools through The Public Theater. Over the years, her work with TNA has included productions of The Tempest and Titus Andronicus (she also made films of both plays) and The Taming of the Shrew.
In 2011, when workmen broke ground on Theatre for a New Audience's first permanent home, the 299-seat Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, Horowitz invited Taymor to do the inaugural production. You can see those construction workers represented onstage in the opening prelude of her play.
"It took me a while to want to do Midsummer Night's Dream," she says. "It had to do with the fact that it was a new theatre and Midsummer Night's Dream had historically been used to bless a wedding and a new house, which is a kind of wedding between the audience and the artist."
She and producer Horowitz did readings of various other plays – Twelfth Night, Timon of Athens, Tamburlaine, As You Like It and Macbeth – "Though you don't really want to bless a new house with Macbeth."
She kept coming back to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which she came to see as a "play that begins as potentially tragic and then transforms as the greatest statement about love in drama, just as Titus is the greatest drama about violence."
For Taymor, the critical issues for a director "were who and what is Puck and how do you represent the quote-unquote 'fairies'?"
Taymor decided she couldn't go ahead unless she could cast Kathryn Hunter as Puck. Hunter – a New York-born, English-trained, five-foot-tall contortionist, director, teacher and all-around gender-bending wonder – is a veteran English stage performer, though only rarely seen in film (she had a role in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)
Taymor had seen Hunter in Caryl Churchill's 1994 play The Skriker at London's National Theatre, where Hunter played an ancient fairy who transformed into various objects and people. The leap to Puck wasn't a big one.
"I couldn't get her out of my head," recalls Taymor. "We're both part of a theatre that loves language but is very physical. And I thought if she'd sign on, then we'd have something. I asked her to be my Pied Piper."
In Midsummer Night's Dream, Hunter is the Pied Piper to the fairies, or, as Taymor prefers to call them, the "rude elementals" playing off the amateur theatre group of workers known as the "rude mechanicals" in the play. Taymor says she began with the concept of having 100 children onstage – "knowing it wouldn't happen, so we settled for 17 or 18."
"The rude elementals were the big discovery for me. I didn't want the nice fairy children of the Max Reinhardt version [the 1935 filmed production] or other nice, jolly productions. They're a wild force, prepubescent kids, before rules, society, and sex kick in and they're the children at the court at the end, wildly loving the play within the play."
Editor's note: This version of the article clarifies Julie Taymor's theatre association.