A Dream to Remember
by John Coulbourn
Since it debuted more than four centuries ago, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has caught and held the world’s attention. So much so that while today it may be Shakespeare’s tragedies – Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet – or his history plays – The Henries, the Richards, Julius Caesar – that first spring to mind at mention of the Bard of Avon, it is this rollicking romantic comedy that emerges as his most popular and enduring work. Arguably, the English language’s original romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also his most produced work. Today, it requires no stretch of the imagination to appreciate that at any given moment, there is someone, somewhere watching a production of Shakespeare’s delicious and enduring confection and having a wonderful time.
And if, like me, you have been lucky enough to enjoy a career writing extensively about the performing arts, chances are you will have spent a lot of time watching various incarnations of the tale. In my near 30-year career covering the arts for newspapers across Canada, I’ve seen Dream set in a mud puddle, a graffiti stained back alley in Chicago and in the midst of a rock ’n roll concert.
I’ve seen the story play out in the Grecian era in which it is set, in the Elizabethan era in which it was written, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras as well as the modern era. Not to mention a few productions, best quickly forgotten, whose setting was far more of a nightmare than any other era.
What’s more, in my years of covering the performing arts, not only have I seen Dream as a play more times than I can begin to count, I’ve also seen it as an opera, a movie and perhaps most memorably as a short, though certainly never small, ballet created by Sir Frederick Ashton.
Ashton created his dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s work titled The Dream in 1964 for The Royal Ballet and it is now a treasured jewel in the repertoire of The National Ballet of Canada, who will be putting it front and centre on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Featuring a lush design by David Walker and set to the music composed by Felix Mendelssohn arranged by John Lanchbery, Ashton’s work is ultimately more a potent distillation of Shakespeare’s full-length romp than it is a mere adaptation.
The story is still familiar, of course. In a world ruled over by the regal Oberon, King of the Fairies and his lovely consort Tatania, the queen of his realm, four star-crossed lovers unravel the havoc wrought by Puck, a careless fairy. All the while Tatania, despite her deep love for her demanding husband, finds herself besotted with the hapless Will Bottom, transformed by more of Puck’s over-zealous carelessness into an ass.
Best of all, in the world of ballet, this Dream finds its perfect milieu, played out in a breath-taking forest in which, thanks to Ashton’s genius, fairies really do seem to fly and everyone seems caught up in the headiness of young love. Where other productions can – and too often do – get lost in a nightmare of technical effects as they strive to create a dreamlike setting for their story, Ashton simply interweaves glorious music and flawless dancing and unleashes magic, instead of striving to create it.
Ashton seems to have tapped directly into “the stuff that dreams are made of” and spun it into a memorable ballet.
The Dream and Being and Nothingness is onstage November 21 – 25, 2018.