Jonathan Miller is directing A Midsummer Night's Dream with one eye on the state of things outside the theatre. "The world seems pretty derelict. There's a sense, as we come to the end of this already unforgiving century, of the squalid, disorderly and dangerous," he says. Yet, judging from his spirited performance over a bowl of rustic soup in the Almeida Theatre's bar, this will not be a solemn production. He clearly relishes acting every part himself and rehearsals must be a riot.
A 1930s setting ("a decaying melange of Noel Coward, P G Wodehouse and The Remains of the Day") allows him to place Theseus and Hippolyta in charge of an estate "a bit like a run-down Chatsworth", with which the world of the fairies and the supernatural is "isomorphic".
In other words, Titania and Oberon (played by Angela Thorne and Norman Rodway) parallel the human aristos to present what Miller calls a "metaphor of stewardship". "Puck and various Peasecods and Cobwebs are not diaphanous, but equal to the Mechanicals in their relationship to Theseus and Hippolyta, " he says.
If Puck is the equivalent of a butler (a quick burst of Miller as old retainer), Oberon is "a frowsty person condemned to live forever. He and Titania have been bickering for the last five or six hundred years."
The words "dusty" and "dishevelled" recur in Miller's conversation. He finds no place for glitter in this down-at-heel upper-class world: "I'm embarrassed by gauzy wings. Can't stand the idea of chiffon, sequins and diamante up to the eyes."
Yet this is a "festive" comedy and there is room for illusion. The convolutions of the plot unfold against "a dusty mirror maze, an endless series of references to optical deception" reflecting the visual mistakes of the plot. There is also a sense of the world being turned upside down. Miller has had some fun with Bottom here.
He was tempted, he says, to put an ass's buttocks on Bottom's head. "It's a great joke that this character called Bottom gets turned into an arse in this unofficial, nowhere, upside down place where the world below the belt gets above it. And, of course, Bottom is always talking through his arse anyway. He is an early Malaprop."
For Titania in this pre-war, class-conscious world, he is "just a bit of rough; she is an aristocratic 55-year-old lady who lets her hair down with the plumber."
The Wood is a marginal "nowhere, nowhen" place (a "liminal state" in philosophical terms) not unlike the Heath in King Lear. "It is like the margin between the old year and the unstarted new, a time for subversion and festivity where boys dress as women and authority gives way to fools. A place where the usual grids of convention are dissolved."
The play ends, as is traditional in Shakespeare, with a return to order, but, says Miller, this is "merely a pause, a kind of mezzanine floor. A Midsummer Night's Dream represents the most cyclical thing in our existence - apology, reconciliation, re-offence. In the final scene, Titania looks at Oberon as if to say: 'You silly old bugger. You are quite boring, but I quite like you'. There will be lots more mad days."
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