Why, at 45, should Peter Brook decide to direct A Midsummer Night's Dream? After the LAMDA experimental Theatre of Cruelty season and the more recent Roundhouse explorations with The Tempest, it seems, does it not, an improbable follow-up to the Scofield King Lear, not to mention The Marat/Sade and US?
To those who think of The Dream as Shakespeare's U certificate play - ideally suited to introducing toddlers to the Bard via its fairytale strands - the puzzled surprise Brook's avant-garde have been expressing in Europe and the States on his choice this year for a return to the Stratford stomping ground of his youth, this puzzlement must have some validity. The answer of course is that Brook has leapt at the chance to strip The Dream of the prettifying and petrifying layers that have made this pre-eminentlt Shakespeare's matinee play. The result was the most electrifying Avonside first night I, for one, have experienced. And, with only two notable exceptions, it seems also to have been so for the rest of the press.
..........in an interview given two days before the official premiere, Brook gives some indication how his mind was working, thereby making these notes both easier and more difficult to write. They are easier because, forewarned, I at least did not overlook, as one enthusiastic observer seems to have done, the phallus provided Bottom by an actor's erecting arm, and I hope therefore not to bark up a wrong tree by suggesting that Brook has divested The Dream of its sexual undertones. On the contrary, it would seem to interpret them in a singularly perverse and fascinating way. On the other hand there is almost invariably a gulf between a director's intentions (stated or otherwise) and an audience's perception of them (particularly in the heightened tension of an especially edgy first night) and the difficulties that this raises must not be ducked.
Most difficult of all, of course, is the task of hacking a clear path through the adulation and scorn that seem invariably to be engendered by a new Brook production. Whether he is directing Olivier and Vivien Leigh (in Titus Andronicus), the Lunts (in The Visit) or John Gielgud and Irene Worth (in the Seneca Oedipus) somehow the originality of his approach has counted for more than the drawing-power of these luminaries - even if their careers have only been rendered more distinguished in the process. All of which has somehow resulted in Brook being dubbed a quintessentially intellectual director - the suavest insult an Anglo-Saxon can bestow on another. This, in turn, has sometimes resulted - probably as a consequence of the tortuous prose he can sometimes perpetrate - in his also being labelled simultaneously academic and pretentious. I cannot speak at first hand of what Brook did with decidedly unintellectual and unacademic material like The Little Hut, but on the evidence of his book, The Empty Space, as well as on what can glean of his current working methods he is the most pragmatic of theatre men whose rehearsals are genuine acts of exploration rather than putting into effect cut and dried preconceptions of the study.
A starting point for rehearsing this production of The Dream would seem to lie in a quote from The Empty Space. It reads: 'It has been pointed out that the nature of the permanent structure of the Elizabethan playhouse, with its flat open arena and its large balcony and its second smaller gallery, was a diagram of the universe as seen by the sixteenth-century audience and playwright - the gods, the court and the people - three levels, separate and yet often intermingling - a stage that was a perfect philosopher's machine.'
In this production those who intermingle are the audience and the actors even if this is no arena stage revival. The audience participates to the extent that they are made to feel they are watching from the wings rather than the auditorium and their involvement - at least on the opening night, was such that they eagerly clutched the cast's hands as they burst up the aisles in response to Puck's closing request
Give me your hands if we be friends,
Above all it must be stressed that the production had been fun - a joyous celebration of the actors' skills in which the limitation of these in the classical field to intelligent vocal manipulation of the verse had been smashed through as only a part of a more acrobatic concept of the actor as a conjuror, a trapeze artist - a being with one foot in the circus and one on Shakespeare's text. It was immensely cheering to see the final vestiges of the idea of a Shakespeare actor being essentially a rather dignified declamatory artist so boldly jettisoned whilst the verse itself remained unmutilated.
All this takes place at Stratford in a bare and consistently brightly lit set which has the three levels of the Elizabethan Playhouse without being in any sense a reproduction of them. There is the audience level on which the cast make their contact with the public at the close of the play and on one or two other occasions earlier on in the proceedings. And there is the stage level which proves to be an enclosed white space - a room with two doors at the rear through which Alan Howard, as Theseus, and Sara Kestelman, as Hippolyta, enter - separately and with dignity. Subsequently, having dealt with equal dignity with the cross Egeus and the Lysander/Demetrius Hermia/Helena entanglement he precipitates, they exit as Oberon and Titania to enact what I take to be a pre-marital dream on the part of Theseus.
For the working out of this dream a third level - equivalent to the balcony of the Elizabethan stage - has to be arrived at. In fact the parallel is provided by a cat walk round the top of the room that constitutes the principal acting area of Sally Jacobs' set. On this narrow balcony are variously distributed the musicians (in modern dress and performing displaced sound effects in full view of the public) and, at times, the fairies who take on the form of modern dress puppeteers dangling massive steel fishing rods that have the purpose both of suggesting that the quartet of lovers are manipulated marionettes and, at the same time, have the practical function of suggesting the trees that are supposed to grow in the wood near Athens.
So the magic in The Dream, usually dealt with on stage in the nursery terms of tittuping fairies and fat jolly avuncular actors wearing loveable asses' heads is flushed this year smartly into the Avon like so much effluent. In its place, we have the rougher magic of the circus, of the puppet theatre and of the music hall. Thus Bottom sports a clown's nose when under the influence of the potion, love in idleness; thus we have Titania floating down from the flies in a crimson bower of ostrich feathers straight out of a folies bergères review; thus we have Puck in yellow pantaloons trailing with him memories of the sturdy accomplishments of the commedia dell'arte troupers; thus we have Oberon nonchalantly spinning a saucer on the end of a stick whilst airborne on a trapeze. To say all this proved exhilarating would be the understatement of the year.
Since the direction tilts the play so much in Theseus' direction, Alan Howard, whether as the Athenian Duke or his alter ego, the fairy lord, Oberon, stands at the centre of this production. And he does so with an unassertive authority richly exploiting the ironical overtones in the closing scene and its return from Oberon to Theseus in a way that is particularly gratifying for those who thought him last year's most promising actor. And Sara Kestelman's Hippolyta has the challenging sort of sexuality worthy of the dream in which she figures so memorably as Titania.
The lovers are clad in the 1970's informal boutique style with Frances de la Tour's gawky, classless, Helena getting worked up about her height in an inconvenient maxi to especially fine effect. The mechanicals, although also in modern dress, are clad a little more anachronistically with cloth caps of the 'thirties and 'forties - a sort of Dad's Army group desperately anxious to please when their spectacle is finally unveiled and desperately proud of their miniscule skills. The off-putting air of patronage that so often inhabits this scene is kept at bay and so are the more flyblown devices for pulling in the laughs thanks to the pervading sincerity of gems like Norman Rodway's Snout.
As long as Shakespeare can continue to be as originally reconceived and as happily executed as he is in this Dream he must surely be still as encouraging and as vitalising a factor in our theatre as the emergence of a whole school of new drama.
Plays and Players, October 1970.