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A way with the fairies

From chaos to a sense of order - Heather Neill looks at how Shakespeare mixes comedy, tears and pain.

Director Edward Hall says he has seen A Midsummer Night's Dream in other productions as "a beautiful, broadly comic love story". But he believes it is more than that. "It is elliptical and delicate, about the nature of love and the struggle, through love, to concord and union.

"At the beginning of the play, Athens is not a happy place. The quarrel between Oberon and Titania has caused the seasons to be out of sorts so summer, spring and winter come at the same time. Duke Theseus has been a bit of a wild man and is preparing to settle down with someone he seems to have won by force. As for the young lovers, their story is very different from anything we might experience. There is a lot at stake - for someone, it could literally be a matter of life and death."

There is comedy, of course, but, says Hall, "the comedy comes from pain. There are a lot of tears in this play. Harmony won't be fully appreciated unless we see the discord, the struggle on the way. The story's thrust is from chaos to order, disharmony to harmony, and our interest is in the emotional journey of the characters to get there.

"The Mechanicals' play is not just an epilogue; it puts the whole story into perspective. It tells us the meaning of what we have watched - and Titania and Oberon and the young lovers will recognise the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as their own. They may laugh at the idea of tragical mirth, but that's exactly what 'the dream' is."

Hall sees the text as an "unusually thoroughly worked piece of writing - it feels honed, well-worked by the actors" and he doesn't intend to cut a syllable. "There are passages which don't further the narrative or characters, but add to the texture, the tone, like music." This is one of the few plays Shakespeare invented from scratch, with inspiration from many sources, but it is thoroughly English, with the Mechanicals and Fairies using Warwickshire dialect.

The Fairies, Hall says, are "very grounded, real people" and the idea that Nature reflects upsets in the human world is rooted in Elizabethan culture. The lovers, meanwhile, may be young but Hall says they are educated and eloquent - "It is a mistake to imagine youth then talk down to it."

Hall's Propeller Company is all-male. "When you take away male and female, the language works in a different way. When the play was written, they didn't express things physically and now we are obsessed with that. They did it in the language instead." Whose dream is it? "Everyone's," says Hall and he will add yet another dimension by mixing woodland scenes with the imagery of a Victorian nursery. "The characters are the invention of the Fairies who inhabit the room. The Fairies dream the story for the audience."

A Midsummer Night's Dream Propeller Company at the Watermill, Newbury, February 5-March 22 then touring to June 14

Tel: 01865 883139

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