The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Who Were You With In The Moonlight

Blah blah BBC Shakespeare blah blah 2006 blah blah not necessarily my opinions now blah blah.



A Midsummer Night's Dream

I know this one quite well. We did it at school - see blogs passim - and it proved something of a turning point in my life, you see. I played Quince. And, because I more-or-less understood most of my lines, I thought I did a good job, all the right inflections, happy, sad, all the actorly stuff. Until I watched a video and discovered I was "Robo-Ham, a high precious theatrical instrument that stalks around the stage in a perfect straight line without even the tiniest hint of expression, topped off by a decidedly wooden gait and the classic countenance of your average computer boffin."


I was shit. Really super shit. And so I discovered that, like singing and doing stuff that required eye-hand co-ordination, whilst I might know in my head what is required I just don't have even the most meagre iota of talent in that area. I am in complete awe of good actors, because good acting is a world away from anything I could ever hope to do. Anyway, that was the point where I realised I was never going to be a writer-performer. The jury is still out on whether I’ve achieved the first half of that equation.

I'll précis the plot and wilfully digress as usual. The play concerns two couples, Demetrius and Helena and Lysander and Hermia. Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. Diagram time.

Helena ----> Demetrius
                             |
                             v
Lysander <----> Hermia

As you can see from the above illustration, if only Demetrius loved Helena things would be so much simpler. But then the course of true love never did run smooth. Anyway, Hermia's dad says she should marry Demetrius, but rather than do this, she decides to do a bunk with Lysander to the woods. Followed by Demetrius. Followed by Helena.

Now, this is the first interesting thing - how this play takes ideas from earlier comedies and does them better. The whole 'woods' shebang is from Two Gentlemen, and what Midsummer also takes from that play is the idea that boys are fickle and superficial in their affections, whilst it is the girls who are loyal and liable to be heartbroken. Even within moments of the high comedy, the girls' emotions are played completely for real - Helena and Hermia are treated abominably, and we sympathise with them. Midsummer repeats the moment of a girl discovering her boy loves another girl - but even though Two Gentlemen did it very well, Midsummer improves on it yet further.

What it takes from Comedy of Errors, though, is its style of humour, which is based the comedy of misunderstandings rather than ‘gags’. There aren't that many jokes in Midsummer - it's all character comedy - and thankfully Shakespeare eases off on the puns. The only puns are strictly in context, as they are spoken by the precocious and yet deeply stupid and innocent Quince.

Which brings us to the mechanicals, led by Quince, also including Bottom, Snug, Flute, Snout and Starveling. Their scenes are the highlight of the play, as the follow the creation and rehearsal of their play 'Pyramus and Thisbe'. What starts as quite a sensible production becomes increasingly silly as Quince starts to take the actors' suggestions on board. Bottom wants to play all the parts - wearing different beards, if necessary. Snug is worried that his appearance as a lion might be too scary, so he makes sure his costume is utterly unconvincing and does a 'mouse' roar. And the others point out that the play needs to feature a wall, and moonlight, which become absurdly literal characters in their own right. Finally, worried that this expressionist production be too confusing, the actors suggest that Quince explain everything that is about to happen in his prologue.

It's brilliant. There is a rich comedy seam in amateur dramatics, and what their scenes remind me of is the Frasier episode Ham Radio. It's one of the very best episodes of Frasier, possibly the best of them all, and makes many of the same jokes – primadonna actors, last-minute improvisation that throws the whole show off, egregious miscasting, scripts being rewritten to the point of incoherence, a director who has ambitions beyond his means, protracted death scenes and a delicious speech about romping in the fens and spinneys when the twilight bathed the hedgerows like a lambent flame.

If you don't know the Frasier episode the Hancock episode The Bowmans covers much the same ground.

The mechanicals’ play is, as I said, 'Pyramus and Thisbe', in which two star-crossed lovers end up committing suicide after a series of improbable misunderstandings about who has died. Shakespeare would later revisit that plot...

Shakey is at his funniest when writing deliberately bad poetry. And yes, you can actually tell the difference. Maybe he's being sarky about other productions, it doesn't matter. What matters is that here now are some of my favourite bits:

Flute: 'Most radiant Pyramus, most lily-white of hue, of colour like the red rose...'

Bottom: 'O grim-look'd night! O night with hue so black! O night which ever art when day is not! O night, o night! Alack, alack, alack'

Bottom: 'I see a voice! Now will I to the chink to spy - and I can hear my Thisby's face...'

Bottom: 'But mark, poor knight, what dreadful dole is here? Eyes, do you see? How can it be? O dainty duck! O dear!'

Thisbe: 'Come blade, my breast imbue... "Stabs herself"... And farewell friends, thus Thisby ends. Adieu, adieu... adieu.'

I think there are probably some other clever-clever jokes in there about them getting their classical references wrong, and some intentionally awkward and contrived half-rhymes - but these are hard to spot with my modern ears.

What makes the final play even funnier is that, throughout, you have Statler and Waldorf talking the piss out of it. Hang on, I've just slipped into my imaginary Muppet's Midsummer Night's Dream. In Shakespeare's version it's Demetrius, Lysander and Theseus heckling with some very, very funny smart-arse observations. And when Bottom offers to extend the play with an epilogue, they are quick to stop him...

Anyway, that's the mechanicals. The third strand in our little comic tapestry concerns Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, who ill-meet by moonlight at the beginning of the play. Ron is a bit peeved with Tits because she's got some Indian kid or something - a 'changeling' - so he decides to teach her a lesson. But for this he will need his faithful sprite, Puck. And so, with a cry of 'Parklife', he summons up

TELEVISION ARCH-COCKNEY PHIL DANIELS!!!

"Though speakest right! I am that habitual voyeur of what is known as- (Parklife!)

I jest to Oberon, that gut-lord marching - he should cut down on his ambrosia mate! (Parklife!)

I get up when I want except on Wednesdays when I lurk in a gossip's bowl (Parklife!)

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob, it gives me a sense of enormous well-being (Parklife!)"

Titania is accompanied by four fairies - Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and Moth. And, as Phil Daniels observes, a Moth's a Moth...

Ron's plan is that Tits should fall in love with some unsuitable using a special magic flower. Puck pops off for forty minutes to get it. Ron sees Helena and Demetrius arguing - so when Puck returns, Ron tells him to use the flower on the 'Athenian' and make him fall in love with the first girl he sees.

But Puck goes and uses it on Lysander - who then sees Helena! D'oh! This just shows how important it is to give clear and unambiguous instructions when employing supernatural beings. If they can get things wrong for comic effect, they will. F*cking pixies.

So now Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander who loves Helena. And our diagram looks like this

Helena ----> Demetrius
^                            |
|                            v
Lysander <---- Hermia

A lovely bit of rotational symmetry. At least, it is until Puck tries to rectify this mistake by finally using the magic flower on Demetrius, who falls in love with Helena. So now Helena loves Demetrius who loves Helena, but Hermia loves Lysander who loves Helena. Noooooh! Diagram!

Helena <----> Demetrius
^
|
Lysander <---- Hermia

So the final thing Puck has to do - this fairy feller's master stroke, if you will - is to undo the magic flower business on Lysander, and everything will be alright. But to do this he has to make sure they are all sleeping in the right place - which he achieves by making them wander around the woods until they got lost...

"Up and down, up and down, I will lead them up and down!

And it's not about you joggers who go round and round and round and round..."

...and so we finally have this lovely, romantic diagram!

Helena <----> Demetrius

Lysander <----> Hermia

I like a happy ending.

But in the middle of this we have one more complication, which links the 'mechanicals' plot with the 'fairies' plot - Puck transforms Bottom's head into that of a ass (that's ass in the English sense, rather than the American sense of a person's anus). And he uses the magic flower to make Tits fall in love with the transformed Bottom...

Now, there is some very funny stuff in this scene - Bottom deciding to put on airs and graces now that he is a 'king' and calling everyone 'Monsieur' whilst being donkey-like in his manners - but what is striking about this, in the BBC production, is how absolutely beautiful it all looks. The above photo isn't a painting, it's a screengrab. I have honestly never seen better video lighting of a BBC studio production. I didn't know video lighting in a BBC studio production could be that good. Basically, what they do is they almost exactly recreate the look of a bit of neoclassical painting. It's gorgeous. And in the studio next door, they were making Four to f*cking Doomsday.

The whole thing is extraordinarily impressive. The BBC production has a Marple of a cast; Nigel Davenport, Robert Lindsay, Helen Mirren, Phil Parklife, Geoffrey Palmer doing a much better job as Quince than I ever did, Happy Nat Jackley aka The Rubber Man and Don Estelle. Don even gets to sing! Brilliant!

Overall - this is perfect. From what I know of Shakespeare's other comedies, this is by far the best - the richest, funniest, fastest and sexiest - a work of genius. There is a beautifully sustained sense of magic, a dreamlike state throughout. Though there may be better plays, who knows, that's what this little voyage of discovery is all about.

Next up: Who do you think you are, f*cking God's gift or something? Yes, it's what happens if you start to believe your own hype... it's Richard II.

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