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Play-reading report: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Edinburgh, 11th Jan. 2015

Before telling you about the delights of our reading of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ – a few words about The Merchant of Venice:

I’ve finally got an answer which satisfies me as to why Antonio is so sad. It came from Northrop Frye. I’ve posted a comment on The Merchant of Venice Playreading report which explains it.  If you’re interested, follow the link above and scroll to the very bottom of the post to find the comment. Whilst we’re on The Merchant of  Venice, don’t forget we’ve updated the punctuation and spelling of the script. You can download the revised script for free from The Merchant of Venice Overview, or you can go the whole hog, and buy the Playreading / Production pack .

 A Midsummer Night’s Dream playreading report:

We held our first playreading of 2015 here in Edinburgh on 11th January. It’s cold and dark in Edinburgh in January. The sun rises after 8:00am and sets again about 4:00pm. To cheer ourselves up, I thought it would be good to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream to remind ourselves of the weather to come in a few months time.

My partner and I prepare for each play-reading by reading the MFFE script out loud, taking alternate speeches. We do it twice, with each starting a reading once so that we’ve read all the speeches of the play out loud by the time we’re done – it’s good exercise for the brain and tongue and mouth  to work their way through the whole script.

To give us a break from this physical effort, we usually watch the play in the BBC’s The Shakespeare Collection version (they’re not always the best production, but they usually stay pretty close to the script). This time, as well as the BBC version, I also watched a DVD of the recent Globe production. You may remember my review of that production, back in July last year.

Watching those two productions made me nervous about our play-reading. Both productions made extensive use of visual humour as well as the script. In the BBC production, the forest scenes make extensive use of a small pond: fairies get dipped in it by Puck; Helena (or Hermia, or both) fall backwards into it in the lover scenes) etc. In the recent Globe production, the lovers in the forest make human knotwork shapes, rather like the figurework on ancient Greek vases, and the Pyramus and Thisbe play is made hilarious by continuous farce involving repairs to the too-small stage; Thisbe’s hooped dress; and, of course, the deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe – it’s the only production I’ve seen where Thisbe manages to upstage Pyramus’ death.

Seeing the two productions made me worried that a playreading with only words might not be quite so amusing.

Well the day came, and twelve of us came together to read the play. We did have problems, but not where I was expecting. The play casting for 12 readers wasn’t very good. In the first half, Demetrius and Lysander had to be read by the same reader, who wasn’t happy. We switched Lysander to be read by another, and that solved the main problem.

The casting software which creates the castcards needs a little guidance from a human being (me) who understands the play a bit. I’d been under time pressure when creating the castcards, and had let the software do its stuff for play-readings for 11 or 12 readers, without guiding it. (Note that since the reading, I’ve tweaked the castcards for 11 and 12 readers and they’re now satisfactory). It’s good to feel that there’s still some role for a person in casting the play.

So how did the play-reading go? It was just as well that the reader of Titania was lounging on a chaise-longue. She spent most of the play collapsed with laughter. The rest of the readers too were thoroughly enjoying the play, and not because of Titania’s laughter. The play gripped everyone’s imagination. One of our better readers got quite cross thinking of the non-Shakespearean humour introduced by actors through farce, or physical bits of business. “It’s funny, but it’s not Shakespeare’s humour – his humour is in the text!!!” Or in the punctuation, if you think of the Prologue.

Shakespeare’s humour in the Pyramus and Thisbe play is mostly about bad acting, and I guess if you’ve got an audience of 2,000 or so, each paying £30 or so for their tickets, you don’t want to rely on bad acting for your laughs.

After the reading, we didn’t have much of a serious conversation about the play. We ate our sandwiches and drank our coffee / tea, and luxuriated in the happiness which comes from a delightful reading of a delightful play.

By the way, the castcards for A Midsummer Night’s Dream have been updated and are available from the Production / Playreading pack, together with improved spelling and punctuation of the scripts. The same scripts are available for free download from the A Midsummer Night’s Dream overview – scroll down to the bottom of the page for the free downloads.

 We hope you enjoy luxuriating in the pleasure from a group play-reading soon.

The Director

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One Response to "Play-reading report: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Edinburgh, 11th Jan. 2015"

  • Roman
    January 25, 2015 - 12:09 am Reply

    I agree with your guest-reader who said that “it’s not Shakespeare’s humour – his humour is in the text.” It may help to understand Shakespeare’s humour in this text to notice that it was Bottom who arranged with Theseus that the mechanicals’ performance was “preferred.” Bottom delivered this message to the mechanicals prior to Theseus’ conversation with Philostrate, the Master of the Revels. It was also Bottom who drafted and adapted “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the performance. Only Bottom would have been able to have Puck playing an active role in the mechanicals’ rehearsal. Puck’s entry during the mechanicals’ rehearsal is indicated in the script when Bottom “goes but to see a noise that he heard, and is to come again.” A moment later when Bottom appears to the mechanicals, his head is transformed by Puck into that of an ass. For obvious reasons, this particular episode is not needed when the play is presented at the Duke’s court. Bottom’s transformation was needed only during the rehearsal, so he could enter the Fairy Kingdom to fix the problem between Oberon and Titania. The dispute between Oberon and Titania is affecting the Athenians. Bottom’s transformation is part of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” script.

    The structure and the content of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is quite complex. With a few symbols and a few seemingly confused words, this play-within-the play explains the entire plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. This is why Philostrate introduces “Pyramus and Thisbe” as “tedious” and “brief”. “Pyramus and Thisbe” contains five episodes. These episodes may be entitled “The Wall”, “The Lion”, “The Moon”, “The Bloody Mantle”, and “The Lovers’ Death”. The episodes are presented in reverse chronological order, i.e., starting with the most recent event (“that is the true beginning of our end”).

    The mechanicals’ story starts with the death of Romeo and Juliet. The mechanicals use the lovers of Verona because the young lovers of Athens have been faced with the same problem as Romeo and Juliet and their Babylonian predecessors Pyramus and Thisbe. There are two obstacles on their way. These two obstacles are a reflection of the conflict between Oberon and Titania. The first obstacle is the animosity and jealousy between the lovers’ parents. This obstacle is presented as the Wall. The Athenian “wall” reflects the animosity between Egeus and old Nedar, the fathers of Hermia and Helena. This is an echo of the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets of Verona. The second obstacle is the lovers’ immaturity and lust which drive their actions. It was Juliet’s immaturity that prompted her to insist on their ill-timed marriage. The appearance of the Lion illustrates symbolically this obstacle. This is the role of the Lion. Bottom’s comment in the final scene “Since lion vile hath here deflower’d my dear” is not his malapropism. He states the fact: at her death Juliet was not a virgin. The episode with the Moon shows how the lowers may be protected against the “hungry lioness.” Namely, the “beams of the watery moon” may protect against the “hungry lioness.” This is the role of the Moon. Pyramus points out that the episode with the lion takes place in full Moon (“Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams; I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright”). This is why Thisbe is not killed by the lion. When Thisbe died, the Moon was not present. Prior her death, Bottom has sent the Moon away (“Tongue, lose thy light; Moon take thy flight”). The “bloody mantle” is a sign that the “hungry lioness” was overcome. (A similar scene is placed in “As You Like It” where Oliver delivers a “bloody napkin” as a sign that Orlando overcame the “hungry lioness”). The bloody mantle indicates that now the young lovers can be happily united. The Wall has been removed. This is indicated by the exit of Snout, who plays the Wall (“Thus have I, Wall, my part discharged so; And, being done, thus Wall away doth go.”) Theseus draws the audience’s attention to this fact by emphasizing the meaning of Snout’s exit (“Now is the mural down between the two neighbours”). The Athenian “wall” has been removed at the moment of Titania’s awakening. This is why the young Athenian lovers could arrive at a happy end.

    The overall intention of the mechanicals’ performance is spelled out by Peter Quincy in his prologue. He tells the audience that the players’ intention is not to please (“All for your delight we are not here”). Their intention is to tell the audience “all that you are like to know.” The audience, however, may be offended by what they will find about themselves (“If we offend, it is with our good will”). Nevertheless, the performance will fulfil its purpose by helping the audience realize their ignorance, and “that you should here repent you.” The mechanicals explain to the young lovers the nature of their experiences the previous night. However, Demetrius’ and Lysander’ arrogance and ignorance do not allow them to grasp the meaning of the message. Instead, they ridiculed the mechanicals. And this is the nature of Shakespeare’s humour in this text: he ridicules those who are making fun of things that they do not understand. So, this is quite a challenge for any director who attempts to stage this play. There is a very fine line that should not be crossed. Because by over-ridiculing the mechanicals, the director ridicules himself or herself. I have not seen yet this play correctly staged. Neither the BBC nor the Globe presentations you have mentioned, nor a famous 1970 adaptation by Peter Brook – met the challenge. Hopefully, one day …

    Looking forward to your next reading report.

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