A Midsummer Night's Dream (2014/15)
Directed by Susanna Dowling
Written by William Shakespeare
December 5, 2014 to January 25, 2015
A Midsummer Night's Dream is the ultimate expression of Shakespeare's theatrical mastery and SFJ is developing a brand new production of the play, directed by Susanna Dowling. In the heat of the shortest night of the year, young lovers and work-a-day dreamers plunge into a world between sleep and waking, where "everything seems double". One of Shakespeare's truly essential works, 'Dream', like every fairy-story, warns us that family, love and friendship are fragile – when parents are selfish, their children break the rules; when love rears its head, friendships are forgotten; and that’s just the mortal world. The Fairy Kingdom's war over a mortal child has turned the entire "mazed world" upside down.
I first fell in love with this play as a teenager, as many people do. There are few plays that deal so well with this heady, heightened time of life. In many ways, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the ultimate teenage parable -the throb of overwhelming teenage feelings, confused sexuality, the thrill of breaking rules, and finally coming out the other side to a newly formed adult version of yourself.
This play for me is about the lure of letting go; of transgressing, of breaking away from repression and finding a subversive, permissive space where you can find out who you really are. I’m drawn to all different manifestations of the human need for the carnivalesque – whether it’s the Amish idea of a ‘rumspringa’, Mardi Gras, underground raves, or Halloween.
Perhaps there’s a little bit of wild fairy inside all of us, which we need to let out to play, once in a while. While it is most definitely a play about revelry and subversion, it is also a play about gender power relations. There are four women at the heart of this play, trying to get what they want in a repressively patriarchal world – a world where they are seen either as property “As she is mine, I may dispose of her”, political pawns “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword, And won thy love doing thee injuries.”, or sexual objects “You do impeach your modesty too much To leave the city and commit yourself Into the hands of one that loves you not, To trust the ill counsel of a desert place With the rich worth of your virginity”. Violent coercion lies very close to the surface of all the male-female relationships in this world.
At the epicentre is the most complex relationship of all – that of Titania and Oberon. Arguing over the possession of a child, their discord has turned the whole world’s climate upside down. Angered by Titania’s stubborn refusals, Oberon decides to sexually humiliate his wife into submission to his demands. The Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a very different place to our world today,
but we are still having conversations about misogyny, feminism and equality, now more than ever. Today, as I write this, we have two major stories in our national media dealing with how men view women, and how women view themselves – one about politicians and the ‘F’ word, and another about a pop song and its allusions to ‘rape culture’. The politics of sex are still as pointy today as they were 400 years ago.
Last year, I attended a symposium at Belvoir, called ‘Misogyny and the Theatrical Canon’, inspired by their concurrent production of Miss Julie. The conversation revolved around how, as female artists, we can respond to work that was written in a time before universal suffrage – when gender power relations were so contextually different to how they are today. A number of the artists on the panel said that they were disinclined to work with canonical work for that very reason, for the underlying misogyny in the work, and so preferred to work with new writing.
But what do you do if you love Shakespeare, his language, his ideas, his humanism? What do we do with the gender imbalances of power that we see in his plays? This year, I have been fortunate enough to be Director in Residence at Bell Shakespeare. I have spent my time connecting to the work, the ideas, and how these resonate in society today. And along the way, this question has dogged me. Do we have to dismiss these plays because they offer so few positive alternatives for women?
The underlying darkness of this play in its gender relations is undeniable, and in conceiving a production, I was left with two options – to highlight that darkness, or to re-imagine it. For this particular season, and in this particular time, I wanted to embrace the joy and energy this play also exudes. Therefore, I have chosen to confront the darkness, and turn it on its head, in true carnivalesque fashion. In my forest, the women are as strong and wilful as the men, if not more so. Gender roles become blurred. Titania and Oberon’s relationship is complex, fraught, adult – but beyond anything else, a partnership of equals. They are both equally powerful, and equally at fault for the chaos they create. Hippolyta will only accept a marriage with Theseus based on mutual respect and shared values. Hermia and Helena, rather than becoming mute arm candy in the final scene, share the lines with their new husbands – and are as equally rude about the mechanicals as the men.
The four worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream work symbiotically, each feeding the other, ultimately creating harmony in Theseus’s court, a healed society. But I love the fact that the fairies get the last word.
"Director, Susanna Dowling, a welcome newcomer to Sport for Jove, tackles the perception of passive women in The Dream head on. She describes her characters as “… strong and wilful as the men. If not more so.” And the comedy is all the better for it."
Naomi Gall | The AU Review
"This feeling of inclusion is a testament to the exceptional acting and direction and should be applauded. Thoroughly entertaining and an absolute feast for the senses, A Midsummer Night's Dream will captivate and delight you."
"An energetic ensemble cast – with a standout performance by Jonathan Mill’s Bottom (pun cheekily unintended) – are well directed by Susanna Dowling, including fun dance and fight scenes by Lizzie Schebesta and Scott Witt respectively."
Photography by Seiya Taguchi
Adele Querol | Helena
Christopher Stalley | Demetrius
Christopher Tomkinson | Oberon/Theseus
Emma Chelsey | Hermia
Felix Jozeps | Puck
Francesca Savige | Titania/Hippolyta
Jerome Meyer | Lysander
John Keightley | Starveling
Jonathan Mill | Bottom
Julian Garner | Egeus
Lizzie Schebesta | Moth
Lucy Heffernan | Mustardseed
Matilda Ridgway | Peaseblossom
Matt Edgerton | Peter Quince
Michelle McKenzie | Cobweb/Snug
Richard Hilliar | Flute
Wendy Strehlow | Snout
David Stalley | Sound Designer/Videographer
Isabella Andronos | Designer
Jeremy Page | Technical Manager/Operator
Michelle McKenzie | Stage Manager
Rebecca Poulter | Festival Stage Manager
Scott Witt | Fight Director/Movement
Sian James-Holland | Lighting Designer
Susanna Dowling | Director