Last night, I had the opportunity to see Filter Theatre‘s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. There’s a LOT that I liked about the production. Midsummer is one of those plays that bores me to tears and brings out my angry feminist most of the time, and Filter’s production certainly wasn’t boring. It definitely brought out my angry feminist, but more on that later.
CN for descriptions of sexual assault
Not sure how necessary this one is, but the show is still touring, so: SPOILERS AHEAD.
First, the good stuff. Filter’s production is really, really good at fun surprises. Oberon and Puck burst through walls, ceilings, and floors; Demetrius does a pretty spot-on Michael Jackson impersonation; and an audience plant joins the show as Bottom after a stage manager comes on to let us know that the “celebrity guest” got stuck in the lift. There’s excellent sexual innuendo with the love potion flower juice stuff. There’s a food fight. There are some good physical gags around who can and can’t see Puck and Oberon when they’re “invisible”. And, as you’d expect from Filter, there’s some great stuff with sound. It’s a fun production. Like I said, definitely not boring.
Despite all the fun, I had two pretty basic problems with the production:
1. Sexual assault is not cool or funny or cute.
2. The Shakespeare was bad. And not in an ’80s way.
Let’s take those one at a time.
I shouldn’t even have to put this in writing, but as I said on my Facebook page after the show last night, I’m getting really sick of otherwise cool and/or interesting productions (especially of Shakespeare) that seem to think gratuitous sexual assault makes them “edgy”. It doesn’t. It’s gross. And it definitely should not be played for laughs.
I saw this in the RSC Cymbeline in August, and I saw it again in Filter’s Midsummer last night. I can’t tell if this is a trend, or if I’m just paying better attention because of my own adaptation project with Measure for Measure. Either way, it sucks.
For those of you who don’t know Midsummer, I’ll give a bit of context, because the plot is actually important here. In the play, there are two hetero couples with a little bit of a love triangle problem. Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other, but Demetrius also wants Hermia and has her father’s permission to marry her. Athenian law dictates that Hermia must either acquiesce to her father, become a nun, or be killed. Yay. Demetrius has previously sworn his love to another woman, Helena, who is still desperately in love with him. He’s a gentleman.
Hermia and Lysander decide to run away through the woods, and disclose their plan to Helena. Helena tells Demetrius of their flight, and he pursues them into the woods. Helena follows Demetrius, despite his protestations that he does not nor he cannot love her and his threats to rape her if she keeps following him (well, his words are “do thee mischief in the wood” but he also talks about her the “rich worth of [her] virginity”, so…you do the math).
Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, has a love potion that makes you desire the first thing you see upon awaking from sleep. He’s using it to abuse his wife (we’ll come back to that!), but he sees Demetrius and Helena fighting and decides she should have that man, dammit! So Oberon instructs his servant Puck to lay the potion on the eyes of a man wearing Athenian garments. Puck finds Lysander, mistakes him for Demetrius, and administers the love juice. The first person that Lysander sees when he wakes is Helena.
And that’s where Filter’s production went very, very wrong.
Helena, tired from chasing a dickface through the woods, pauses to catch her breath. She sees Lysander lying on the ground, and rouses him, concerned the he might be dead: “If you live, good sir, awake!”
And wake he does, immediately professing his love for Helena and his newfound hatred for Hermia. Helena is at first confused and then indignant, convinced that Lysander is cruelly mocking her miserable single life. But Lysander is persistent, insisting that he does hate Hermia and love Helen.
This is one of those tricky scenes in which someone wants to get away and has a very good reason for wanting to leave, but they can’t actually vacate the stage until they’ve said all their lines. Most productions get around this problem by creating energetic chase scenes, chock-full of near-misses, leapfrogs, and furniture tossing. This is, in itself, a little problematic, right? No Means No, Lysander. But I suppose the text must be served.
Filter’s production, however, takes things one step further. This time, Helena is prevented from leaving the stage because Lysander is physically and sexually assaulting her. Check out some of the lines that Filter’s Helena delivers while Lysander’s head is between her legs and she’s trying to push him away:
Good troth, you do me wrong–good sooth, you do–
In such disdainful manner me to woo.
But fare you well. Perforce I must confess
I thought you a lord of more gentleness.
Helena ends up on the ground, with Lysander engaging in some non-consensual heavy petting and over-the-clothes cunnilingus before she finally gets away.
But here’s the kicker: when Helena stands up, she has a moment where it seems like she kinda enjoyed it despite herself. With a little giggle and a coy look at Lysander, she bends at the hips and puts her hands over her crotch, then looks embarrassed and runs away.
The whole thing is played for laughs. The band/Mechanicals watch and do nothing. The take-home message for the students sitting next to me, as Roberta Barker and Dave Nicol once observed, is absolutely horrific: “Although the victim may seem unwilling, in fact it’s all a bit of saucy fun”. As Barker and Nicol go on to say, “this is hardly a productive of way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves” in a time and place where “rape victims are still subjected to humiliating cross-examinations about their sexual pasts on the witness stand”.
And that’s without considering the abuse that Titania undergoes for having the audacity to stand up for herself, or the whole Theseus/Hippolyta thing, or the fact that Demetrius and Helena end up together in the end. Can we also please stop pretending like two guys kissing each other is super good comedy? K, thanks.
Oh, and let’s not forget the part, in Filter’s production, where Lysander starts a food fight by chucking buns at a defeated, prone Hermia, who has been convinced that the guy willing to flee his home with her two scenes ago now hates her guts. SO FUNNY, RIGHT?
This leads me on to my second problem with Filter’s Midsummer: the Shakespeare bits.
Now, anyone who knows me may be surprised to find me complaining about “the Shakespeare”. I’m generally totally on board with slicing, dicing, deep-frying, digesting, and regurgitating Shakespeare as much as you darn well please. My friends and I cut the Duke from Measure for Measure for Pete’s sake. Yes, we really did. So why am I so bugged by this cut-up, no-interval, super-fun production’s treatment of Shakespeare?
To be honest, I’m having trouble putting my finger on it. But I think it’s sort of connected to the sexual assault problem. Let me explain.
What are the stereotypes about Shakespeare from people who don’t like Shakespeare, or haven’t encountered much Shakespeare? He’s boring. He’s hard to understand. Too many rhymes. So old-fashioned. Filter’s production confirmed every single one of these stereotypes. Their delivery of lines from Shakespeare was, on the whole, stilted, forced, boring, and rushed. It was like they had so much fun making the play that they forgot to do the play.
I’m going to caveat this next part by saying that I have no idea if someone who’s unfamiliar with Midsummer would’ve been able to the tell the difference between the “verbatim” Shakespeare and the paraphrased, improvised, rewritten, or newly written bits. But Midsummer has some extremely purple passages, and it’s very rhyme-y, and so it was painfully obvious to me when they were doing “the Shakespeare”. And it was also painfully obvious that they thought their material was way funnier than Shakespeare’s.
Who am I to disagree? A lot of what they were up to genuinely was way funnier than Shakespeare. Nerdy superhero Oberon and sound tech Puck watching the four-way love triangle fight from lawn chairs with snacks like they were in a cinema? GENIUS. Monty Python-style coconuts for Bottom-as-Ass walking around the stage? COMEDY GOLD. Oberon zooming around on a wheelie chair pretending to fly? WIN.
HOWEVER. That dynamic creates an impression that Filter are putting up with Shakespeare in order to have a marketable vehicle for their brand of screwball comedy. That’s absolutely fine, to an extent. But that implied relationship to Shakespeare makes it too easy to write off the stuff that isn’t funny–like that pesky sexual assault thing–as part of Shakespeare and not part of Filter.
I think that’s what I found so irritating about their failure to perform the Shakespeare bits well: it allowed them to gloss over the sticky relationship situations we find at the end of the play. Helena has Demetrius because he’s under a spell; Hermia has had her faith in Lysander seriously challenged; and Titania has basically been date-raped. None of these merit more than a passing glance in Filter’s production, because that would get in the way of the fun part where Bottom-as-Pyramus pretends to be dead for so long that everyone laughs.
My point is that it’s all well and good making Shakespeare more fun or more accessible. I’m totally and completely on board with that as a goal. But I’m not on board with productions that get away with ignoring or even endorsing the play’s really sticky politics because there was that funny bit with a spray can of whipped cream.