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

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/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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."

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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.

Nestruck: At the end of Dream, Puck says: "If we shadows have offended.…"

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Abraham: Our first preview, I was watching and when we got to the ending, that final speech leapt out to me in a way that I had seen the possibility of … but it really materialized in a very different way than I'd experienced before.

Sellars: From what I can tell, his show has just really generated a lot of discussion and lot of heat amid all the jokes and that's something special and really rare.

Abraham: We haven't seen each other's shows yet.

Sellars: I love that people actually have to discuss something, because for me that's the job description. You did that, Chris. I'm dying to see it.

Nestruck: I find that the advent of gay marriage in Canada has changed the way I watch Shakespeare's comedies. I used to feel, personally, more negative about the institution of marriage, but now I'm more bullish on marriage – and maybe artists are as well, seeing it as an actual happy ending again?

Sellars: Shakespeare has never struck me as normative in any way. He always strikes me as trying to subvert any established structure. And every single comedy of his is the saddest thing I've ever seen, heartbreaking. So many of the marriages are so fragile, and so many of the final acts are twilight and melancholy. Or have people truly, strangely chastened. For me, Shakespeare's plays don't end – they arrive at a new beginning.

Nestruck: What is the darkness that you find at the end of Dream, where all the lovers are matched up and allowed to wed?

Sellars: Puck's last speech: "Now it is the time of night / That the graves, all gaping wide. …" Hello, it's not exactly heart-warming.

We're not handing out little bonbons. That is serious stuff about mortality.

"If you pardon, we will mend. …" That's a big question in human affairs. Seriously, how much forgiveness do we really have? But I don't ever want to characterize a Shakespeare play as happy or sad, because it's like saying a Mozart symphony is happy or sad.

What's great about Mozart is it can be really happy or sad at the same point.

Nestruck: Chris, the ending of your production – it's textured, but it's quite joyous.

Abraham: I see constantly in Shakespeare this very, very hopeful evidence of love as the primary force in the universe – a force that has an opposite, but fundamentally a weaker opposite. Even in Othello, in spite of the pile-up of bodies, in the right production, you feel bowled over by Desdemona's love for Othello, bowled over by their courage in loving each other, bowled over by Emilia's love and self-sacrifice for Desdemona. For me, this play is another example of the power of love and how it changes you and how it changes society.

Nestruck: So different from love in a Strindberg chamber play – where it's often a destructive force.

Sellars: The worst days of your relationship also make the best days possible. You're not going to have one without the other – it's a total weather system. For Shakespeare, love is not a romantic thing; love is cleaning the bathroom. It's a lot of work and it's a lot of commitment.

Nestruck: While Shakespeare's plays may not be happy or sad, we do split them into comedies and tragedies. Is there a bias against the comedies? We talk about Hamlet and King Lear as his greatest works, but Dream as simply popular. Is there an argument to be made it's one of his best, too?

Abraham: Yeah, probably. I don't know if I would make that argument.

Sellars: I'm not too into ranking things, but in the history of humanity, it's one of the most amazing things ever conceived … a volatile, exploding volcano of energy. The spiritual life in Midsummer Night's Dream – anyone practising that in England in Shakespeare's lifetime would be burned at the stake. So the Puck stuff is not just charming, English folklore.

Nestruck: Okay, then rather than talking about tragedies and comedies in terms of which are better, could we say the comedies are more dangerous?

Sellars: I feel the continuity of it. The two plays that have the most brutal language in Shakespeare are Dream and King Lear.… We know why Dream is usually presented to us in a certain [innocuous] image, and when the image of the fairy kingdom in the 19th century, and the children's books, and the Mendelssohn music and all that took over. But Shakespeare actually wrote a play for adults – and it's an adult play, not a kids' play.

Nestruck: I've been telling visitors to Stratford bringing kids to go see the Dream at the Festival Theatre. Chris – you've even included children in your cast, playing the fairies.

Abraham: I wanted children to be there. I wanted that to be part of the inclusive premise of the piece. I wanted that to be part of the process of making the play too, so guys could kiss and we could do all the sexy humour in the play in a way that both honours the bawdiness of it, but that we would also have to wrangle with children being in the room. That was my largest goal, that it would be something we could do for the whole family.

Nestruck: And what about W.C. Fields's old show-business maxim: Never work with animals or children?

Abraham: They were absolutely 100-per-cent professionals. They want to get it exact, they want to be part of the team. They want to live up to the energy and focus and serious mission that all of the adults are putting into the show.

Sellars: Only work with children and animals is the answer.

Abraham: There was another reason too: To find a way of being on the Festival stage, where what is beautiful about children on stage could be allowed into the aesthetics of the production – the kind of unfinishedness and lack of polish; to inspire the adults to be themselves and to be personally present on stage in the way the children were.

Sellars: A lot of my shows are about putting all kinds of people on stage with actors. We're interested in theatre not because we're interested in theatre. We're interested in theatre because we're interested in life. For me, you want as much life as possible on stage and you want all life forms. God knows, Shakespeare calls in this play for all life forms – everything in the whole universe is in this play. Shakespeare, again, is not proper at all. When you think of him rehearsing for four days on these shows, I don't think he was hung up on production values. I think he was just fine with letting things be raw and wide-open and surprising and alive. That's a lot of the joy of it.

Nestruck: When I hear you talk about Shakespeare, Peter, I hear someone who holds him in very high esteem. What do you say to audiences who think his plays should only be staged "as written," who say: If you didn't like the play, why don't you write your own?

Sellars: Stravinsky's answer when he rearranged Tchaikovsky and he was accused of messing with it was: You respect; I love. Obviously, we've all been through productions that are unbelievably respectful and completely brain-dead. And we've all been through things that are appalling misrepresentations but have such life-force and such vision, that you see something you absolutely never saw – and you treasure that in whatever form it comes.

Nestruck: And Chris, what do you say to those, and there are those who have said it online, about your Dream: That's not Shakespeare?

Abraham: On one hand, I feel bullied. But, on the other hand, I feel it represents people's sense of possession over Shakespeare, which is kind of interesting. Here you get into the question of establishing expectations for an audience. If we were to do a do-over, we would try a different approach to how people were told about the show, because there is an implicit: "Come see Shakespeare as you love him and know him – and then go see Peter's production." Antoni never said that I should do that. …

Sellars: If it had been that, I wouldn't have wanted to play.

Abraham: … but I do think many people come to the show expecting one thing and getting another.

Sellars: That's one of the issues here at Stratford – and a lot of places where there is a ritual. I've seen it with Mozart at the Salzburg Festival. This place is about those expectations. For me, this is the beginning of an exfoliation. Let 100,000 flowers bloom – Shakespeare by nature is not a narrow playwright.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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