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Beethoven’s jig


Around the Globe, the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe, Issue 31, Autumn 2005. Heather Neill welcomes a new user’s guide to the Dream by a versatile practitioner.


Michael Pennington – actor, writer and practical critic – is the obvious successor to Harley Granville Barker, the widely acclaimed early 20th-century actor-director-playwright whose ‘Prefaces to Shakespeare’ are still consulted by modern practitioners. This book is Pennington’s third analysis of a Shakespeare text as director’s script, following ‘Hamlet’ (1996) and ‘Twelfth Night’ (2000). Pennington knows his ‘Hamlet’, literally, inside out, having acted in it three times in the roles of Fortinbras, the Ghost and Claudius as well as Hamlet himself. ‘Twelfth Night’ he directed three times before embarking on the line-by-line discussion of directorial choices which characterises these ‘user’s guides’. Now ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ gets similar meticulous treatment following his popular production of the play at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in 2003.


In his engaging introduction Pennington acknowledges that the play under discussion itself dictates the style and tone of writing and the nature of the material to be included. His treatment of ‘Hamlet’ is fascinating because writing about it is, as he puts it himself, “to write about most of life”. ‘Twelfth Night’ he found to be a comedy with tragic undertones. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ can be funny, magical and touching, but there is a suggestion that Pennington would have liked to find rather more in it, that the mining of the changing emotions of mortals and fairies, the exploration of poetry and Shakespeare’s choice of verse-structure for different purposes somehow didn’t lead much beyond itself. And yet ultimately he finds great affection for the play: “This is also like a jig written by Beethoven, a child’s picture by Francis Bacon; an early masterpiece by someone who felt growing within him the power to see further and deeper than any dramatist has done since”. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would follow swiftly in 1595. ‘Hamlet was some five years away. Pennington’s last sentence, concluding the most enjoyable final chapter in which he describes the building of his own production, ends with an acknowledgement of the ‘Dream’s’ power as theatre: it is “a brush with genius on the move, an open invitation to the best night out imaginable from the theatre’s great dreamer”.


Solving stage problems leads to some fascinating insights. Here is Puck as down-to-earth mischievous Robin Goodfellow, “hobgoblin” even, who nevertheless shows a feminine sensibility, administering “erotic correction” to ungallant Lysander. Theseus and Hippolyta carry something of their legendary violent past with them, but make terms “as if Mike Tyson and Emmeline Pankhurst decided to marry”. Demetrius, buttoned-up and lacking imagination, is liberated into romantic poetry by love-in-idleness. Bottom, Pennington decides, is both genuine ass and “sunlit William Blake” in his love for Titania, but (in contrast to other recent directors) feels that their encounter has an “odd chastity” in it. And as for the fairies – just think of the confusions of size, capable of affairs with humans but also tiny enough to creep into acorn cups. The mechanicals and the lovers are perfectly distinguished, their separate journeys delightfully documented.


Half way through the book is a chapter entitled ‘Interval Music’ and her Pennington ranges with obvious pleasure through music (Britten, Mendelssohn), painting (Blake, Fuseli) and film (Max Reinhardt, Woody Allen, Michael Hoffman) inspired by the ‘Dream’. This is fun and excellent for reference, but it cries out for illustration.


Who will be the user of the guide? Anyone putting on a production, amateur or professional, would do well at least to dip in for enlightenment about certain scenes and would probably be hooked. Students may well not read every word (as they might in the case of the ‘Hamlet’ book), but they could certainly benefit from Pennington ‘s observation of character and tone as revealed in verse form, especially in the expertly dissected lovers’ scene in the forest. And anyone with so much as a passing interest in the ‘Dream’ will enjoy ‘Interval Music’ and the final, personal, chapter.


Pennington is well-read, perceptive, a fluent and generous writer, exactly the right guide for what he describes as “a report from the front on what happens to the play in the heat of action”. He refers respectfully to Barker, but cannot help noting his “tight-lipped primness” and calling for a better series for the modern world. He seems to have embarked on just that.


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A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A User’s Guide

Actor Michael Pennington’s beautifully written User’s Guides… are full of insights on matters of interpretation as well as production.

- The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (2010)