There are three reasons why I adore Shakespeare
Plots that engage
Magnificent language that lingers in the mind
I watched last night on DVD a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, his lovely play all romantic froth and moonlight. I got it out because I’d enjoyed Helen Mirren’s Rosalind and I wanted to see her as Titania, Queen of the Fairies. I was not disappointed.
But the drama caught me up and carried me along - as Shakespeare always does - and I realised at the end I’d hardly noticed Mirren as a performer, the role is so intertwined with the rest of the play. It moves at a good pace, that mix-up of lovers and mistaken identities, ‘rude mechanicals’ comedy, courtly pomp and revels, and finally believable fairies. Above all else there is that mercurial hobgoblin, Puck.
At the beginning we hear: ‘Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth.’ So the play romps on until Puck’s conclusion
‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.'
What happens on stage and screen is all a fantasy.
I first met the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in my Latin class at Christchurch Boy’s High. ‘Spud’ Moffat the teacher introduced us to Ovid’s tale. Lovers, forbidden to meet, the pair conversed through a crack in the wall between their two houses. They arranged a tryst outside the city walls. Thisbe got there first but was frightened off by a lion. Fleeing she dropped her veil. The lion, bloody-mouthed from a fresh kill played with the garment. Pyramus arrives and fearing she has been eaten by the beast kills himself. Thisbe comes back and finding her lover dead in turn stabs herself.
In Shakespeare’s play Quince, Bottom, Flute, Starveling, Snout and Snug, go to the forest to rehearse their performance of this famous story. Oberon, the King of the Fairies and Titania have had a quarrel. To punish her Oberon instructs Puck to drop a potion into her eyes, which will mean when she wakes she will fall in love with the first person she sees. Puck magically changes Bottom’s shape. Titania sees this creature first. The result is classic comedy as the fairies Peasbottom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed wait upon the bemused donkey-headed Bottom and the doting queen.
One of my educational regrets is that I cast for a school production of this play. My appointment to the secondary school inspectorate put paid to that project. Unwittingly I gave my successor a hospital pass. I'd cast a tomboy girl as Puck – she seemed a monty for the part. But puberty set in. Her personality changed. She was not good.
The only time I’ve actually been involved in acting the play was at Roger and Kathrine’s wedding. A group of us acted out the mechanical’s performance at the end of the play. ‘A tedious brief scene of Pyramus/ and his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’ Vincent O’Sullivan was Pyramus. I was Moonshine.
Reading Byatt’s The Children’s Story earlier this year reminded me how much English literature has used the concept of fairies. I am sure this play fastened that particular myth into the national consciousness.