Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of A Midsummer Night's Dream from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.
In its original performances, A Midsummer Night's Dream was presented in daylight on the simple thrust stage of an Elizabethan playhouse, where perhaps the balcony at the rear of the stage provided Titania with her bower. No scenery and a minimum of props allowed the action to move swiftly and the audience to focus on the richly evocative language of the play. Music and costume added to the effect. Shakespeare wrote his plays with the strengths and talents of his fellow players in mind and the female roles were taken by his gifted group of boy players.
The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom was the title of a comic piece taken out from Shakespeare's play and included in Francis Kirkman's The Wits in 1673, 'sundry times Acted In Publique and Private'. The play as a whole did not please the taste of the Restoration theatregoers. Pepys saw one of the few performances and, although he liked the dancing, he condemned the rest as 'the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life'.
It was in an adapted form that the play found success when, in 1692, Henry Purcell wrote the music for a spectacular operatic version called The Fairy Queen.
David Garrick's own operatic version, The Fairies (1755), dismissed all characters except the lovers and the fairies. Fewer than 600 lines from Shakespeare's original remained but there were an additional 28 songs, some from other plays by Shakespeare and some from other poets, such as Dryden.
Spectacle and music continued to underpin the success of the play as it appeared on stage in various adaptations. Francis Reynolds, in 1816 at Covent Garden, introduced new music for many of the songs added by Garrick. Reynolds also spared no expense in astounding his audiences with lavish pageants of classical figures, such as the Centaurs, Ariadne in the Labyrinth, the Argo and the Golden Fleece and a number of other legendary creatures.
More of Shakespeare's text was retained in a successful production in 1840 led by Mme Lucia Vestris but she still could not do without the antiquarian settings and hosts of gauzy ballerinas. She herself played the part of Oberon and thus began a longstanding custom for a woman to take the role.
From the middle of the nineteenth century for the next 100 years or so, Mendelssohn's overture and incidental music was used in performances. Samuel Phelps, Charles Kean and Herbert Beerbohm Tree were notable among nineteenth-century actor-managers producing the play with ever more musical extravagance and picturesque detail. According to the playbill for Kean's production, the tools used by Bottom and his fellow workmen were 'copied from Discoveries at Herculaneum'.
In 1914 Harley Granville-Barker reclaimed the play for a Shakespearean-style stage. The fast, clear action was played out an apron stage with only two simple sets and the dextrous use of lighting and curtains to vary location. Oberon and Puck were once again played by male actors. Puck wore scarlet and a wild wig decorated with berries, while the other fairies were painted in gold, like stiffly beautiful Cambodian deities. One reviewer described them as 'ormulu fairies, looking as if they had been detached from some fantastic, bristling old clock'. Cecil Sharp's arrangement of traditional English folk music replaced Mendelssohn.
However, in order to please the public, traditional approaches to the play continued to be staged. For example, Tyrone Guthrie's Old Vic production (1937) in which Vivien Leigh's ethereal Titania was attended by 22 balletic fairies. In this production, Robert Helpmann played Oberon and Ralph Richardson played Bottom.
Robert Lepage conjured up an astonishing world of primordial mud in his 1992 production at the Royal National Theatre. Theseus first appeared punting an iron bed-frame into the centre of the muddy pool of a stage, around which the other characters gathered for their dispute. Puck was played by the acrobat/contortionist Angela Laurier whose heavy French accent made her words sometimes difficult to follow but whose incredible agility created a truly non-human creature.
In 2001 at the Albery Theatre, Dawn French played a female Bottom as a member of the Women's Institute helping the war effort in 1940s England.
A Midsummer Night's Dream on film
- 1935: Max Reinhardt's film with James Cagney as Bottom incorporated long balletic sequences similar to those of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century stage productions. Reinhardt himself had staged the play many times between 1903 and 1939.
- 1969: Peter Hall made a film version of the play using some of the ideas and actors from his 1962 stage production for the RSC.
- 1981: The play was directed in the BBC TV Shakespeare series by Elijah Mojinsky with Helen Mirren as Titania surrounded by fairies inspired by Henry Fuseli's eighteenth-century visions.
- 1996: Adrian Noble based his film on his earlier stage version.
- 1999: Michael Hoffman's film set his version in a picturesque Tuscan setting, with Kevin Kline as a gentle Bottom.
Musical versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream
Benjamin Britten's opera version of the play has enjoyed great success since its composition in 1960. Likewise, Frederick Ashton's ballet, set to Mendelssohn's music, premiered at Covent Garden in 1964 and has been a popular choice in the ballet repertoire since then.
RSC productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream from 1920 - 2008 »
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Ellie Kurttz shows PR JiJoy as Oberon in Tim Supple's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2006 - the show toured India and played at The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival. This outdoor performance for students took place at Winterbourne Gardens in Birmingham.© RSC