A forest of frosted glass and moving mirrors, where Theseus bags pheasants and Puck talks Cockney. Jonathan Miller welcomes Andrew Burnet to his Dream-world.
Anyone whose first major taste of fame arose from a collaboration with Peter Cook. Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett must know a thing or two about comedy. In the 37 years since Jonathan Miller and his three chums created Beyond The Fringe for the Edinburgh international Festival. he‘s become a revered director of theatre and opera. But those who saw. for example. his BBCTV 'Iaming ()f’l'he Shrew (starring John Cleesc) in I980 will know that his approach to Shakespeare's comedies is to make them funny.
Miller‘s most recent production. A iliidsummer Night's Dream created for London's Almeida Theatre. comes to Glasgow this fortnight. and is the funniest interpretation ofthat play you're likely to see. yet he denies it's lost any of its seriousness.
‘l think Shakespeare‘s comedies are the place in which you see the tragedies.‘ he maintains from his hotel in Salzburg (where he‘s directing Cosijim lune. mm‘irh’rrh). ‘ln a very odd way one can’t make a sharp distinction. This is a thing that everyone who wrote farce understood: farce is always teetering on disaster. What makes it funny to me is that the comedy is not artificial — it depends on the foibles of real people.‘
Purists might also take issue with the one-liners Miller has added to the script. but he has no truck with that. ‘You can do whatever you like.‘ he argues. ‘l took care not to violate or intervene when it came
to the famous passages of verse. but the whole point is that you can’t desecrate an object when you perform it. it remains interpretable for someone who comes along and wants to see it in a different way.‘
Set firmly in the |93()s. the production throws a spotlight on the British class system. The upper echelons of both human and fairy society are ponayed as patronising and pukka: while both Puck's band of working fairies and Peter Quince‘s motley of ant-dram enthusiasts are coarse-vowelled and downtrodden. ‘lt seemed to me an intriguing counterpart to the class world that Shakespeare was obviously concerned with.‘ explains Miller. ‘And there were some things about the forlorn. rather decaying world of England just before the Second World War which seemed to me rather vividly melancholy. The play has usually been represented as if it was just simply a son of magical. nocturnal romp in fancy dress. I wanted to see what would happen if it was set in a world which was much more definitely recognisable.‘
Accordingly. Miller has eliminated differences between the human characters and their fairy counterparts. ‘Shakespeare represents the fairies as exactly like human beings.‘ says Miller. ‘Quarrelsome. difficult. drunk and rather forlorn in their marriage. The only magic they exercise is disguise. The magic eyedrops are a son of metaphor for the fact that we can suddenly discover we don't like the people we thought we adored.‘
Class and glass: leonard Fenton (leit) gets heckled by the privileged posh in Miller’s A Midsummer iilght’s Dream
Talk of metaphor brings us to the set. designed by Philadelphia-born filmmakers the Quay Brothers. It replaces Shakespeare's forest near Athens with a labyrinth of semi-opaque glass. mirrored doors. dismembered manikins and arcane mottoes which. i suggest. seems at odds with the handsomely-clad 30s gentry who inhabit it. Miller disagrees. ‘A forest is a metaphor for confusion and loss and bewilderment.‘ he points out. ‘So also is a world in which transparency and reflection compete with one another. It's all about people reﬂected in the eye of a vision which has become changed.‘
Another theme stressed by Miller‘s Dream is that of time: several characters glance frequently. White Rabbit-like. at their pocket watches. ‘I wanted to show that time marches on.‘ explains Miller. ‘We have to meet engagements. fix things — we are bedevilled by time in the short term. But also. behind these brief punctuations. there‘s the long step of ageing; and that's one ofthe reasons I had everyone slightly older than they're normally seen. i think it‘s a play about getting older. about marriage to which one is prepared to sacriﬁce everything. and then you discover that marriages are subject to the passage of time.‘
Shakespean'an humour can often seem stale. If nothing else. Miller‘s production illustrates the everlasting ridiculousness of humanity.
A Midsummer Ni girl's Dream. Almeida Theatre Company. Tramway. Glasgow. Mon 3-511! 8 Feb.
Upstairs, downstairs, in milady’s chamber or wherever you lay your hat, cross-class passions are still as likely to raise an eyebrow as any other body part. And while spanking the maid is still considered a rite oi passage ior some gentlemen oi leisure, the lady oi the house taking the upper hand with a bit oi rough has never been quite the thing. it
certainly wasn’t in 1888, when Swedish nutter August Strindberg tirst tried to ioist Miss Julie - his now-classic bout oi no-holds-barred sexual wrestling - upon the doyens oi buttoned-up society.
The play evolved irom a chip on Strindberg’s working-class shoulder into a blistering dramatic scrap, iniluenced both by his background as the son oi a servant-girl and by Nietzsche’s notions oi the supemian.
iiobert David MacDonald, who’s directing a new production ior the Citizens’ Theatre, doesn’t think the audience will ﬁnd it too hard to relate the play to today’s moral climate. ‘Everybody’s somebody’s
servant,’ he points out, ‘so it’s not that diiiicult a jump to make. And we still all have sex - on a good day, anyway.’
Despite umpteen translations already in existence, MacDonald - a highly regarded translator - opted tor a spanking-new one oi his own. ‘lt was one less person to argue with,’ he reasons. ‘Even well-regarded translations are inaccurate, and with a play as tightly written as this you have to be as accurate as possible. There’s extraordinary power shiits in the play, and you never know who’s in charge irom one moment to the next.’ lie also changed the leading lady’s name to the more iormal .iulla,
making plain her status as mistress oi the house.
Will it shock us, though, as it did strait-laced Stockhoimers a century back? ‘You can’t expect people to be shocked these days,’ laments MacDonald, ‘but the way the pair oi them go at each other is still pretty alarming. “Shocking” is a iunny word - but ior an audience in 1888 i can’t think oi anything more alarming. The only way we could get that today is ii we put on a play about Margaret ‘ihatcher being iucked by a baboon.’ (iieil Cooper)
Miss Julie, Citizens’ Thelma, Glasgow, Thurs 6 Feb-Sat 1 Mar. Free preview, Wed 5 Feb.
The List 24 Jan-6 Feb 1997 55