A quick flick through A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Okay, hold on tight. This will be a wild ride…)
Our tale begins with Nick Bottom and his fellow tradies preparing a play for the impending wedding celebrations of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta. But it’s not all sweetness and light for the Duke. First, he must settle a squabble among his subjects: Hermia and Lysander wish to marry, but Hermia’s furious father insists she marry another admirer, Demetrius. Athenian law dictates that Hermia obeys her father, or faces execution, or spends her life in a convent – it’s her call and she has just days to decide.
Hermia and Lysander have other ideas and decide to elope. Before departing, they share their plans with Helena (Hermia’s bestie). But Helena is so desperate to win the heart of Demetrius that she tells him what Hermia is up to.
Under cover of darkness, Hermia and Lysander flee into a forest outside Athens, pursued by Demetrius who, in turn, is pursued by Helena. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, pretty much everything, it turns out. You see, this isn’t just any forest. It’s an enchanted one. Populated by mischievous fairies.
After a lovers’ tiff with his fairy queen Titania, King Oberon instructs his sidekick Puck to help him cast an enchantment to make the sleeping queen fall in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening. While Puck gathers the secret ingredient for the spell, Oberon witnesses Demetrius angrily rejecting Helena in the wood. Feeling sympathetic, Oberon tells Puck to work his magic and make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. (But while instructing Puck, the king is a little hazy on the details.)
Within hours, Puck causes pandemonium. He stumbles on feeble-minded Nick Bottom in the forest and, for kicks, gives him the head of a donkey. Titania awakens and immediately falls in love with ass-headed Bottom. Meanwhile, Puck’s magic misfires when he accidentally makes Lysander fall head over heels for Helena – leaving Hermia bereft and alone. Realising Puck’s mistake, Oberon makes Demetrius fall for Helena.
Both boys now swear their undying love for Helena, who assumes it’s a cruel wind-up. Hermia arrives on the scene to find Lysander besotted with Helena. An all-out brawl ensues.
Before events can spin even further out of control, Oberon and Puck finally cast their magic in the right directions. Bottom becomes fully human again. Titania and Oberon kiss and make up. Lysander and Hermia’s love is restored, and Demetrius remains enchanted with a delighted Helena.
Awakening the next morning, the bewildered young Athenians stagger home and have a triple wedding alongside Duke Theseus and Hippolyta.
(Told you it was wild.)
LOVERS AND DREAMERS
A Midsummer Night’s Dream character lowdown
Theseus and Hippolyta Theseus is the loved-up ruler of Athens, preparing to marry Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons.
Hermia and Lysander Besotted with one another and prepared to do whatever it takes to marry.
Egeus An overbearing dad who thinks he knows what’s best for his daughter, Hermia. He’s determined that she marry Demetrius.
Helena Hermia’s despondent BFF had a brief dalliance with Demetrius and still carries a big flaming torch for him.
Demetrius A hot-headed young man who has the hots for Hermia – not Helena.
Titania and Oberon A forest-dwelling fairy queen and king who share a passionate and tempestuous relationship.
Puck (aka Robin Goodfellow) A fairy rascal who serves Oberon. When confusion or anarchy is afoot, Puck is usually behind it.
Nick Bottom A bumbling weaver who, with a bunch of his tradie mates, shares delusions of acting greatness.
DREAMING IT UP TOGETHER
All theatre is an act of creativity on the part of cast, crew and audiences. Together, we are all in a room, surrounded by strangers, sharing in a collective act of imagining. We suspend our disbelief and enter a fictional world.
Bell Shakespeare’s 2021 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a celebration of this. Actors remain on stage as they switch between roles and costumes, yet our imaginations carry us along with the story.
Appropriately, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of only two plays where Shakespeare appears to have conjured up the story from his own imagination, rather than borrowing heavily from a single pre-existing plot (The Tempest is the other one). And his script repeatedly refers to human creativity.
In fact, the whole play is structured like a collective leap of imagination. Act 1 takes place in the real, rational world (Athens), then we disappear into a dreamlike, magical space (the forest) for three Acts, before awakening back in reality (Athens) in the final Act.
The course of true love never did run smooth
Lysander, Act 1, Scene 1
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…
Oberon, Act 2, Scene 1
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Puck, Act 3, Scene 2
Though she be but little, she is fierce.
Helena, Act 3, Scene 2
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here,
While these visions did appear.
Puck, Act 5, Scene 1
Post-show conversation starters to make you look smart
LOW LIFE AND HIGH LIFE
William Shakespeare created vivid characters from all walks of life and, as a humble glovemaker’s son, he had a soft spot for commonfolk. A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains an Amazonian queen, a Greek duke, and supernatural royalty – yet Shakespeare gave the most lines of all to Bottom the weaver.
Conspiracy theorists suggest a simple country lad like Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written the plays attributed to him. But A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests he did. The play is riddled with references to flora and fauna from Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire countryside.
Three of the moons orbiting the planet Uranus are named Puck, Oberon, and Titania. According to NASA, Puck orbits Uranus in less than 24 hours, not quite the forty minutes in which the play’s Puck travels “round about the earth”.
In a 1964 television special, The Beatles performed their own (suitably chaotic) version of Pyramus and Thisbe. Paul and John played the doomed lovers, George played Moonshine and Ringo (of course) played the docile Lion.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired operas, ballets, classical music and the action movie Die Hard. Yep, you read that correctly. Legend has it that director John McTiernan decided Die Hard’s story should take place in a single night, after seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (No wonder he cast the great Shakespearean actor, Alan Rickman, as the villain.)
Down the years, stage and screen productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have been a magnet for leading actors. Among them: Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helen Mirren, Kevin Kline, Vanessa Redgrave, Christian Bale, Diana Rigg, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Rockwell, and Matt Lucas.