Foremost among the ‘Bard’s’ outstanding qualities are the timelessness and profundity of so many of his poetic lines. He is extraordinarily quotable because of his deep meaning and everlasting relevance to human and social experience which cause audiences to be able to relate to the lines even in contemporary times.
The Theatre Guild’s second production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in two years directed by Malcolm DeFreitas at the Playhouse in Kingston allowed reflection on those qualities and the meaning of Shakespearean comedy. A staging of the play is useful because it is a set text for CXC English B exams; it is a welcome return to classical types and to Shakespeare on the local stage, and illustrated well what the dramatic type called comedy is.
On the other hand, the unfamiliarity with this type of theatre, the rustiness and the inexperience were still in evidence. And even while the less informed question the relevance of this brand of drama today, audiences were obviously entertained and instructed despite an unfamiliarity with the language that the production did not overcome.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in Athens, begins with the main conflict. The main characters, Hermia played by Tamika Henry and Jasmine Wong, and Lysander (Mark Luke-Edwards) are in love, but face the disapproval of Hermia’s father Egeus (Jamal La Rose), who insists that she should marry his choice – Demetrius (Sean Thompson). Egeus appeals to the Duke Theseus (Randolph Critchlow) who rules in his favour, ordering Hermia to marry Demetrius. The lovers decide to run away and arrange a rendezvous in the forest. Ironically, Theseus himself is also very much in love with Hippolyta (Makini Harry) and all Athens is planning their wedding. To make things worse, Hermia’s friend Helena played by Sonia Yarde and Latoya Kellman, is hopelessly in love with Demetrius who spurns and mistreats her.
As the plot thickens, they all end up in the forest, which is the place of pastoral retreat and redemption, and the habitat of the fairies. Shakespeare’s comedies abound in dramatic parallels in plot and characters. So, he creates an ironic inconsistency in the way Theseus is happily about to marry his love, but tyrannically forces Hermia to marry one who she does not want and forsake the one she loves. Similarly, the playwright creates a conflict among the fairies, which is one of the sub-plots. The king of the fairies Oberon (Clinton Duncan) is estranged from his fairy queen Titania played by Radiante Frank and Stacy Semple, because she refuses to give him an Indian boy she has adopted to be his page. He enlists the aid of his servant Puck (Keyon Heywood) to play a trick on her to force her hand.
The other sub-plot is the plan of a group of ‘menials’ – artisans of the town led by Bottom the weaver (Nelon Benjamin) and Peter Quince (Nikosi Layne) to perform a play as a tribute to the Duke at his wedding. Typical of the Shakespearean comedy, they provide most of the laughter in the play by their own inconguous behaviour, and also by the ridiculous outcomes of the way they are drawn into the plot by the mischief of Puck. Again, typical of the Shakespeare comedy, this sub-plot relates to the main plot.
These ‘mechanicals’ mean well but make a clumsy attempt at performing a play. They mock the actions of professional players just as they mock the equal errors being made by the main characters in planning a state wedding and planning their lives. Ironically, they perform the play Pyramus and Thisbe in which a chance misunderstanding turns the lovers’ plans into tragedy. Theseus unwittingly almost causes an unhappy outcome by his actions. Significantly, Bottom asks “who is Pyramus, a lover or a tyrant?” He could have been asking about Theseus.
Puck, however, is the play’s mischief-maker, the adorable ‘villain’ who is responsible for many complications and misunderstandings. Keon Heywood played this role for the second time and interpreted it much better in this performance.
While he still had a tendency to over-act, he demonstrated a truer puckish glee. He moved with a dancer’s grace while creating humour and was entirely believable. This was a studied, fluent performance. Puck drops the juice of an enchanted flower in the eyes of characters while they are asleep, which makes them fall in love with the first person that they see when they awake. This is important because it creates ridiculous and laughable chaos, emphasizing the folly of loving with the “eyes” – an important image and symbol in the drama. When people “love” by “looking” – what they “see,” instead of an engagement of the mind, it leads to folly if not disaster.
More than the others, the character who suffers and who is most embroiled in this is Helena, who grows from a doting, unhappy love, learns, and is rewarded in the end by gaining the one she loves. It is almost as if the fairy king manipulates things to put right injustice and mend the foolishness of the mortals. Sonia Yarde as Helena demonstrated her unfathomable talent. She proved that within her repertoire of accomplishments is a Shakespearean actress. Hers was a very clear, understandable portrayal of Helena. The play belonged to her.
Yarde was in command of the language, its rhythms and meaning. She took the audience through Helena’s many emotions from a ridiculous fashion of fawning to victimhood, anguish and even anger. The lines were well spoken and the body language appropriate and effective.
The Theatre Guild might have revisited Midsummer Night’s Dream to accommodate students studying the play for CXC who will always gain from seeing it on stage. But this would have been better achieved if the performances were done earlier, rather than just shortly before the exams, and if it was promoted among the secondary schools. This did not appear to have been done.
So perhaps the revisit was to give DeFreitas, his cast and team a chance to redeem themselves after last year’s attempt. In 2013 they were at least a bit more experienced at handling Shakespeare. It was a clearer dramatization.
But it was not enhanced by some of the technical elements, except for the lighting, which showed some thought. Shakespeare’s disregard for the unities makes it difficult to construct a set for a particular place – it cannot be realistic, but it could at least, be representational. DeFreitas’ set was non-existent. And lazy. The fault is not in the use of a bare stage, because that has artistic viability; but this one made awkward attempts to have realism on stage in some scenes and was generally unfinished. Costuming by Clinton Duncan, Latoya Kellman and Danelli Husbands had some characters who were fairly ok, but most were arbitrary, out of period and place. Many were a mismatch.
Due to the long absence of Shakespeare on the Guyanese stage and the lack of experience, the language was a struggle. There was unfamiliarity among both cast and audience. Performers tried to negotiate the iambics, ending up with too much emphasis on stress and metre. They paid attention to lineation rather than meaning with some sounding a bit stilted.
The style of delivery had a tendency to walk about too much. Casting ignored several references to Helena’s height – “long legs,” and Hermia’s shorter stature – “low” and “little”; Helena is taller but, interestingly in this production both alternates who played Hermia, Jasmine Wong and Tamika Henry, were taller than both alternates as Helena, Latoya Kellman and Sonia Yarde.
The production could count accomplishments. The pace was generally right with spirited confrontations and quite a bit of energy. Tamika Henry contributed to this engagement and interaction, bringing life to the role and clarity to confrontations. She appeared a very competent actress capable of handling major lead roles. Jasmine Wong came to the role without much experience as an actress but seemed to have gained considerably in confidence and delivery. She was in the unfamiliar position of a lead role in Shakespeare, which she performed without appearing to be intimidated.
There was much strength in the male principals Mark Luke-Edwards as Lysander and Sean Thompson as Demetrius.
They also contributed to the high energy levels and crisp pace achieved by the production, while treating changes of pace and emotions appropriately. Both Luke-Edwards and Thompson demonstrated continuing growth in maturity and accomplishment as actors and were believable as these rivals.
DeFreitas’ production also worked in another area that illustrated a significant property of Shakespearean comedy – that is, its use of humour. The artisans provided a fair amount of merriment in their antics and histrionics as Layne, Benjamin and the others understood the comic style that was required of them.
Although Radiante Frank tended to slow the action down a bit, both herself and Stacy Semple were sensitive to the subtleties in the role of Titania, which is not a comic part, but provides some delight while under the spell of the enchanted flower.
In a period of time when local plays abound on the Guyanese stage and comic pieces are in demand, it was refreshing to see Shakespeare attempted at The Guild. The marked clarity of the play communicated statements and showed why an Elizabethan drama is still relevant. Additionally, there is still much virtue in exposing the audience to the great plays of the world.