I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival . It’s chockablock with interesting people and sessions, but because it’s the sort of event that expects you to take notes in a moleskin notebook, I won’t be doing a lot of liveblogging — there are fewer outlets than in a 1970s airport.
Last night I went to the very first screening of Julie Taymor‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a composite recording of four live performances in Brooklyn. (I suppose that makes this the first review of it!) According to this roundup of reviews of the stage version, the critical establishment was impressed by Taymor’s genius for staging — it’s astounding, stunning — but less impressed with the directing of the actors. But, because Taymor filmed it using the repertoire of movies — close-ups, controlled focus, etc. — we can see the acting through the spectacle. Taymor has made some bold choices.
Some of that boldness pays off. For example, Titania’s lasciviousness with the donkey-headed Bottom helps reveal her character and informs her loving relationship with Oberon. Kathryn Hunter brings an autonomy, mastery and a sense of completeness of character to Puck. The ensemble of young children who are the fairies (or “rude elementals” as they are listed in the cast) are believably otherworldly. But…
…I suppose it should also count as a bold choice to make every character a recognizable stereotype. The costume and makeup choices assert this, making it clear that it was intentional. Bottom is a NYC (maybe NJ) working class Italian, Oberon is a magisterial African warrior king, Demetrius is an up-tight crew-cut guy, Lysander is a long-haired romantic, etc. This works well for the comedy, but the play needs the characters to grow out of their types because otherwise this play is merely about a weird interruption. We want the interlude to have changed them, to help them become who they are. Indeed, some are changed, and those are the moments when the play moves from entertaining (and boy is it entertaining!) to moving. For example, when Hermia realizes that Demetrius loves her, the play breaks open. In that moment, love is raw and deep.
There’s a moment at the end that I thought was brilliantly directed, and that helps justify the shallowness exhibited by all four of the young lovers. The nobles react to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe like jerks. The mechanicals are giving it their all, and their all is hilarious. But the nobles make cruel fun of them. Yet we love the mechanicals. What are we to think?
So, Taymor does this brilliant thing. After Bottom has gone through his world-class over-acted death scene (always a highlight), his buddy playing his lover knocks her/his death scene out of the park. The moment when he takes off his wig is heart-stopping. And is comeuppance to the contemptuous snobs who have been mocking the show-within-a-show.
Taymor took questions after the screening, and I asked her about this. Does the fact that the nobles look like jerks during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe mean that our culture’s presumptions have shifted since Shakespeare’s time? How are we supposed to make sense of it? Taymor answered at length. She said she’d struggled with this scene. She cut lines, put the most vicious ones in the mouth of a character we already disliked (Hermia’s father) and made him drunk to boot. She cited Theseus’ lines “I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it” as Shakespeare’s guide for our attitude. She pointed to Shakespeare’s sympathy for all classes. She acknowledged the way Thisbe’s speech undercut the nobles’ jeering attitude. All I’d add is that the jeers of the nobles at the mechanicals’ embrace of culture can be seen as the last gasp of stereotypes: the audience has been laughing at the working class bumblers throughout, and now our own attitude has been subverted.
During the Q&A session, Taymor said she is trying to figure out the best way to release the film. I hope it gets distributed broadly. It is not the first Midsummer you should see — the staging is more astounding in comparison to prior performances — but it would be an excellent second. So, I hope she figures out how to make it available to everyone who is learning to love Shakespeare.
Ms. Taymor, you know about Creative Commons, right?