In Lorca's Play Without A Title, a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream is taking place off stage and figures costumed as characters from Shakespeare's comedy mill around the proceedings. The Prompter announces that he finds this work "very cheerful", whereupon Lorca's "Author" figure robustly disagrees. "But it isn't cheerful," he argues. "Everything in the play tends to show that love, whatever kind of love it may be, is an accident and doesn't depend on us at all. The characters fall asleep, the little spirit Puck arrives, makes them smell a flower, and, when they awaken, they fall in love with the first person who passes by. So the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, falls in love with a peasant with the head of an ass. It's a terrible truth, and a destructive truth can lead to suicide. . ."
Written around 1935, Lorca's unfinished drama anticipates, in its troubled, uncomplacent angle on the Dream, the sort of interpretation that would become common some 30 years later in the wake of Jan Kott's criticism and Peter Brook's celebrated white-box, trapeze-borne version of the comedy. After all, how should we feel about a play in which one of the couples (Helena and Demetrius) has only managed to become a romantic unit because the male partner is still under the influence of Puck's magic potion? That fact points up merely one of the ways in which the moon-struck interpretation of the play's three worlds - the supernatural realm and the two human spheres (aristocratic and artisan) - remains disturbing even after the supposed resolution. And as for that enchanted wood near Athens, isn't it just the Unconscious avant la lettre and with leaves? Indeed, reviewing a recent foreign staging, Irving Wardle was moved to argue that these days "any self-respecting production . . . has to be experimental" because the previously agreed conventions have melted away. "What, in 1991," he asked, "is a fairy?"
Emboldened by these areas of indeterminacy, modern directors have seized on Shakespeare's text as a pretext for exploring contemporary anxieties. In Alexandru Darie's acclaimed Romanian version (a hit at Lift a few years back), the magically monitored, metaphysically shifting world of the play became the eerie mirror of a politically shifty and repressive surveillance state. Oberon's retinue pointedly included four Securitate snoopers in grimy macs. Instead of sticking with the common practice of doubling Oberon and Theseus, the same actor was also used to play Peter Quince, the director of the rustics' amateur theatricals. This had the effect of turning the figure into a sinister split personality, a master-manipulator from whom nothing on any of the play's levels was private.
Evoking, in Darie's staging, a political nightmare from which it was impossible to awake, this blurring of boundaries was taken to the opposite, purely psychological extreme in Robert Lepage's notorious mudbath Dream in the Olivier. Benjamin Britten's operatic version famously opens with glissando chords that mime a sleeper's breathing, as if the whole earth were suspiring in slumber. With the spectacle of the four lovers slumped in a sleeping heap on a hospital bed that was being punted around the enormous dirty pond of a set, Lepage made the hermetic idea of a communal dream-within-a-dream just a shade more unavoidable. Here, the young couples' experience of the magic forest became a literal wallowing in the primordial muck of the collective unconscious. Hello, Jung lovers, so to speak. At dawn, these now inordinately besmirched figures left for the morning light under a row of sprinkling showers, the only surprise being that they weren't put through a car-wash.
In complete contrast, Botho Strauss's 1983 play The Park, which premieres in London at the RSC next week, achieves its revisionary take on the Dream by heightening rather than relaxing the division between the supernatural and human worlds. …