On Midsummer And Shakespeare: 'O What Fools These Mortals Be'

Over three quarters of a billion people, yes, three quarters of a billion people around the world have engaged with a British government campaign to celebrate the life of William Shakespeare in this year, the 400th anniversary of his death. June 2016 brings us to the halfway moment, the middle, the mid, indeed a season of midsummer nights, 'looking before and after'. So it would seem apt that it is A Midsummer Night's Dream that, for so many of us, captures more than any other of his plays the width and wisdom of all that is Shakespeare.

As a comedy The Dream presents the panorama of people. It is underscored with the threat of tragedy but, in its escape from the potential gloom and trauma, it celebrates the way society can and must be made to work. For all its contextual magic, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a realistic study in the worth of behaving responsibly and intelligently. Commanding its vision are the great Shakespearean virtues and values, embodied in characters determined and frustrated in their search for identity and relationship, often through the pursuit of love and the dedication of service. The Dream is a restorative staging post in the great Shakespearean transformational journey from his setting-out in The Comedy of Errors to his returning-home in The Tempest. The play is created out of what for him are the defining attributes that comedy articulates and explores - 'comedy' as in Dante's Divine Comedy, involving an embracing of the full, foolish and fallible panoply of human community within a metaphysical context. These are virtues above all of generosity, kindness, magnanimity, tolerance and forgiveness. At Midsummer 2016, in a most disturbing year of human cruelty and confusion, where the very concept of 'community' ('who's in, who's out?' - Lear) is so cynically challenged, do we not more than ever need the story of that midsummer night and the single path of hope that eventually emerges from the two divergent paths of love and hate which wind through the briar and thickets of that wood in Athens?

It is often the very first word of a Shakespeare play that can propel us into meaning. 'Who?' sets Hamlet on a quest for identity. 'When?' begins Macbeth, the play where the Future forces nature's healing. It is 'If' for Twelfth Night and its illuminating conditionality, and 'Now' ('Now fair Hippolyta') for The Dream. 'Now' takes us directly into the present moment, sealing immediacy between the audience and what they are witnessing on stage. For now is the stuff of which drama is made and A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of those Shakespeare plays - with Hamlet and The Tempest - that most consummately explores the nature of theatre and its tautology and synchronicity with play, with dreaming and with life. The Dream's sub-play Pyramus and Thisbe is another of Shakespeare's great dramas. It is defiantly a play that is unable to engage its audience, to share its 'now'. The audience struggles and fails 'willingly to suspend their disbelief' as Coleridge would have it. And so Pyramus and Thisbe powerfully accentuates the potent reality that The Dream, the greater play that embraces what it is delivering--that extraordinary reality and hold on truth which is being shaped by a wilfully dreamlike, supernatural and unreal world.

The world's love of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been manifested in a myriad of great, and often innovative, productions. If our understanding of the power of theatre was transformed (that is a major Dream word) by Peter Brook's life-changing, art-changing and audience-changing book The Empty Space in the 1960s, it was Brook's own extraordinary production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford which gave the book its compelling ideas and emotional thrust. For the British Council it was Tim Supple's production of The Dream, emanating from a startling convergence of Asian and European cultures and languages in 2006 that most materially realized the efficacy of the British Council's core remit of international cultural relations. And, when we look to the cinema, is there any more captivating rendering of a Shakespeare play on film than Max Reinhardt's 1935 Dream with Joe E Brown's Flute, Dick Powell's Lysander, Mickey Rooney's Puck and (Olivier's favorite actor) Jimmy Cagney's Bottom?

In the UK this year, The Royal Shakespeare Company's nationally touring production for the 2016 celebratory year will be A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the community spirit of this iconic play will be cleverly captured by adding extra performers to the RSC professional touring troupe. In each town where this Dream settles, local children will play the fairies and the local amateur dramatic society will be asked to play 'the mechanicals'. No danger there - the worse, the better in those roles - though the reviews wonderfully have the locals regularly upstaging the mature thespians.

A Midsummer Night's Dream will also be celebrated globally too. Building on the success of the 750 million people involved in the British Council and the UK's GREAT campaign Shakespeare Lives, Midsummer is currently being celebrated with a 48 hour social media campaign on Twitter encouraging people from all around the world to celebrate the play.

Because finally A Midsummer Night's Dream is about the diversity and demographics that must constitute our working societies and our successful communities. The illusion of the play ('It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream') consumes the audience's experience and yet there is a clear vision of the realities of social life that emerges. And that community understanding is dependent on love to make it work. Love in The Dream is as much the energizing motive of right living as it is a sentiment of attraction and romance. Here, then, is a play of the people, presented through, that most popular of arts, the theatre. Royalty, aristocrats, chiefs of staff, adolescents, young professionals, proletarians and craftsmen all struggle to get along, accompanied by variant walls and lions, moons and benevolent, malevolent fairies and by lunatics, lovers and poets.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is elusive and ethereal, yet it grows inexorably to 'something of great constancy'. It is a play about class and it is a play about diversity. It is a play about love and it is a play about life. And it is a play about everywhere and everyone in June 2016.