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“Love means never having to say you’re sorry” – one of the most romanticized and foolish lines of the last half century. But what IS love? What’s it worth? Can it be measured? A Midsummer Nights Dream begins with these questions, set in the structured environment of Athens where a big wedding, full of pomp and circumstance, is planned. But nothing, we find, is simple, least of all love. Everything goes haywire as we fly with four young lovers into a forest, where love is tangled up with fear, confusion, and a huge amount of hilarity.

Hi everybody, my name is Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater and production dramaturg for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by the fabulous Tyne Rafaeli. I want to tell you a couple of things that will prepare you for seeing this beautiful show on our Bruns stage. 

Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Some of you would have heard that from the movie Love Story decades ago and maybe carried it in your hearts. Well, in my opinion, what a load of rubbish. Love means many things, including being able to say you’re sorry, and start again. Love in this production is very close to death. And there’s a reason that young Hermia’s father, Egeas, places it side by side with death in the very first scene of the play. It raises the stakes of the play right off the bat. What would you do for love? What is the worth of your love? We think of love as something generous, something passionate, but right at the top of the play Egeas puts a huge cost on love. Are you prepared to die for your love? What’s it worth to you? So at the very beginning, this play freights love with an enormous burden. Your love may be wonderful, glorious, unique, but will you die for it? How many people in the cold light of day would die for love?

In order for this question to be staged in a really powerful way, the actors have to embody every line, every response, every word, as if it’s never been played before. And as if this is not just a spat between a spoiled privileged girl and her father. This, everybody, is a life or death matter. How many of you out there have called for your daughter to be put to death, because she wants to marry someone you don’t care for? Of course, this is a gruesome reality in parts of our world today. But it feels so far removed from us sitting here at the Bruns. Yet here on our stage is how this situation is presented. Now, Lord Theseus is the ruler of everything. He comes in and says, “hold on, hold on, an execution is not fit for my own wedding day. Let’s just take it down a notch or two so it doesn’t ruin the merriment. How about you either choose Hermia, the man your father wants for you, or you can live celibate for the rest of your life.”

Much better, right? A vibrant young woman to be “mewed up,” as Theseus puts it, in a convent, forced to shave her head and get up to pray at four every morning and wear a wimple for the next 50 years. Wow, what a beginning. And Tyne Rafaeli, our director, really wanted us to understand the impact of this. In fact, we have two pretty extreme situations that begin this play that so many have called a delightful comedy. We have Hermia’s predicament. And we have a war bride who’s been brought here as the price of her army, the army she commanded, losing a war. So she too, faces another very different kind of confinement. She’s been shooting bows and arrows, facing wars with her women warriors. Now suddenly, she has to be someone’s wife and to live in a court.

So this play begins, I think you’d be quite willing to agree, with women being given very narrow choices. How many women have faced that over the centuries? The whole reason, I believe, that we’ve had the notion of women being “on the shelf” is so that women will be taught to wish for their own confinement. Now today, in 2019, things are different. But this is the legacy that women have been born to, right down through the Greeks, the Hippolytas, the Hermias, the Jane Austen women, right down to the 1950s after the Second World War, when women were taken out of the workplace, to make room for returning soldiers, and put right back in the home again.

But where is my delightful play? You might be thinking, What’s Philippa done with it? Where’s my joyful Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s right here, everybody. It’s just built on an edifice of something much darker, and underscore of music, if you like, that adds a dark tone. Midsummer Night’s Dream is a world that bursts with life, which is, let’s face it, astonishingly close to death—life in all its passion, its dangerous confusions. And you’ll also get in our play, something that isn’t always offered in life, you’ll get the miracle of ultimate resolution. Our director, Tyne, wanted this to be a world of love, danger, confusion, in which everyone is represented—the working person, the gods, the prince, the bourgeoisie. Tyne feels that Midsummer blows apart binary ideas, either-ors, black and white, it blows apart the most hard and fast divisions between men and women, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. And it also breaks open divisions between the natural world and the human made world. Such breaking open sometimes occurs through violence, and at others through joy and ridicule. Tyne wants this production to operate a little bit like a Pixar film, so that adults coming to it can engage in really important and complex thoughts and conversations. And yet, she says, we must always advocate for the eight year old, who is there for the first time, and hasn’t yet experienced all of these heartaches and fears and complexities, and who simply wants to have fun.

You will see this in the set, a wonderful box designed by Nina Ball, which reminds me of the useful box that I used to watch on TV shows as a child. The set opens out to all kinds of miracles and mysteries. It frames the structure of Athens, the wildness of the forest. And it gives us a beautiful sense that our mind is the frame for everything we see and feel in this world. The set is gorgeously illuminated by the lighting done by GG [Jiyoun Chang]. The light enables the world to transform and change color when we need it to. And the costumes designed by the wonderful Ásta Bennie [Hostetter], advocate truly for the 80-year-old and the eight year old. They remind us that with a change of shirt or a jacket or a pair of shoes, we can literally step into another version of ourselves or someone else.

I want you to think for a moment about where this play starts: the court of ancient Athens, and think about where it leads so quickly into the forest, from structure into wildness, just like a human being’s mind. Perhaps. We can have all kinds of plans, all kinds of rules. I don’t eat ice cream… but look at that creamy gelato. I keep my commitments… but I wasn’t to know I’d be offered two free tickets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream tonight. I love my partner but… oh my god, I can’t stop thinking about this other person. In other words, our rational brains are Athens—structured and stately and organized. And our emotions are the forest. The forest is magnificent, wild, crazy. It also has dangerous, wild ideas like animals that might charge us or bite the back of our most deeply held principles. So if our emotions are the forest, no wonder it’s such a tangled mess in there.

And here, in a nutshell, is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that uses an age old mythic theme. Notice the setting again in Athens and all the mythic names you’ll hear tonight to tell a story of eternal newness and surprise, of despair and hilarity of music and dancing, the sheer wonder of love, all played out in the forest, from which we returned to Athens and get to have our lives back in a recognizable shape again. Everybody, I can’t wait for you to see this play. I love it. And I love the fact that we’ve been able to bring this experience, this group of actors and designers, this wonderful director Tyne to our first show of the season.

Welcome, and I hope you’ll join me and the other speakers out in the grove before the show.

Have a question about A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Ask Philippa, our Resident Dramaturg in the comments below!

Dr. Kelly’s work has been supported by many foundations and organizations, including the Fulbright,  Rockefeller, and Walter and Eliza Hall Foundations, the Commonwealth Awards, the Centre for Human Emotions, the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation, the California Arts Council, and the  Bly Awards for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. The best known of her several books is The King and I,  critically acclaimed for framing King Lear through an Australian lens for social justice. With Amrita Ramanan (Director  of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, Oregon Shakespeare Festival),  Dr. Kelly is editing a field-wide volume of case studies, Diversity,  Inclusion, and Representation in Contemporary Dramaturgy: Case Studies from the Field, to be published by Routledge in the summer of 2019. 

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2 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: Midsummer”

  1. Hi Philippa:
    We were so happy to have heard your talk before seeing the play. It really made a difference for me, as I’ve seen the play at least 4 times (OSF, Berkeley Rep since 1973) and never stopped to consider how dark the quickly forgotten opening is. You reminded us the play begins darkly until it moves to the forest. Zaniness makes a lot more sense if it emerges from tragedy or near-tragedy (marry this guy or die!) than it would were it to appear out of nowhere and miss that important set-up. You offered to mail your written lecture to those of us who requested that document. So please send it? I look forward to reading it.

    -Allen Kent

  2. philippa M kelly

    Hello Allen, I’ll be happy to: can you email me at pkelly@calshakes.org and I’ll send it toon? Yes, this play is truly like a score awaiting performance. It begins with such a thunderously dark note, and then as everyone scampers to the forest, you feel the roller-coaster of emotion that they go through. I know myself that when I’m in the midst of a difficult interaction, the idea that “this too shall pass” is very far removed from the immediacy of emotion in the moment!

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