I see in art, particularly in theatre, an opportunity to create spaces where meetings and intersections are possible between individuals, cultures, languages, and time periods. Performing a re-enactment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream today allows us to experience one of these meetings, where the past resonates with the present.
Around a year ago, I took advantage of a lovely, sunny afternoon to re-read Shakespeare’s Midsummer in the Luxembourg Garden. It is a play that I know well: one that I had seen, read and even studied countless times. However, what the play evoked in me then was contrary to the bucolic reverie that I had anticipated. From the first scene, I was struck by the extreme violence caused by shifting power relations between the men and the women. I always envisioned Hippolyta as a demure bride, perhaps because she says so little in the play but on that day I was struck by a different image of her. I imagined her arriving enchained, subjected to a forced marriage. Hippolyta, in the face of this subjugation, realizes her lot in life and sees no palatable solution to her situation but to flee into the forest. And Titania as Queen of her fairy dominion is drugged by her partner Oberon, who the proceeds to take away what is precious to her. By the end of the play, the women characters all finish by (re)finding their male partners as if nothing has ever happened. These personal revelations occurred in October 2017--a month marked by the explosive expose of Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual abuse. In the ensuing mediatization of the #metoo movement, it seems inconceivable for me – even unacceptable – to continue to view Shakespeare’s Midsummer as a simple romantic-comedy… it is a story about the power relations between the sexes, and one of resilience. However, while we can still enjoy Midsummer’s comedic moments that does not prevent the audience from considering the deeper questions posed surrounding the subject of the presented male / female polarity.
As an American, to investigate these dynamics and to develop these characters with this lens interests me enormously. Not only because the United States is currently engaged in a battle for the liberation of the words of women in the public sphere, but also because my country is currently facing a profound crisis in becoming a place where building walls is appealing; creating obstacles instead of openings to deal with differences. For Midsummer is a play that questions the concept of boundaries. It involves the story where the fairy realm meets that of humans, where Athenian nobles mix with shabby mechanicals, where the comic blends with the tragic. Not a single character is completely spotless, and the dominant / dominated power dynamic is in ever-changing flux. At the height of the chaos enters Puck –as he plays his role, aligning with neither the gender nor class binary; he manipulates all in turn, whether it is the fairy queen, the lowest actor, or the young nobles lost in the forest.
The question of transgressing rules, so central to the play’s core, brought me to examine the liberation of the body outside of social norms. Both jazz and swing are historic examples of the driving forces associated with the liberation of the body – specifically for women. The choice to include the musical and choreographic elements as a linking thread for the show is thus not a trivial choice. Similar to the moments of burlesque, they serve as physical manifestations for the intellectual arguments presented above.
It is important for me to invite the audience member to experience a sensory discovery of the Shakespearean text, not just simply an intellectual one. By choosing to perform this version of Midsummer in English, I want the French audience to hear the original poetry of the Shakespearean text that can elude even the most brilliant translation. In addressing the concern of an audience member not fully understanding the verbal text, it is the goal of the production that the actors’ movements and interactions will allow everyone to understand the essential: the emotional essence of the production. Thus the role of the narrator is essential: to welcome the audience, guide them, remind them of characters and plot points, to help people feel at ease, and be able to open themselves up to the power of what they see. It is much less important how many subtle metaphors the audience can grasp than the greater importance of feeling the sensations evoked on stage.
Finally, let us not forget a fundamental aspect of the project: Midsummer is meant to be a pleasant and enjoyable show that highlights the essential dimension of theatre: the pleasure of coming to share an emotion together in a shared space. Distraction is not necessarily a terrible concept! I was raised to consider theatre as neither elitist or hyper intellectual; instead I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Shakespeare performed in parks, parking lots, and classrooms, as productions intended for all. And it is that inclusiveness that I would like to share with you all.