Lunya - article

Staging a Dream


How do you set the stage for the deepest of slumbers? Sleep so deep that it can mend a broken heart, dispel a hesitant fiancée’s qualms, or reconcile a couple bickering over a child? On a lighter note: where might a fairy queen choose to make her bed, what does she use for pillows, and what should her enchanted forest look like by night? These dreamy questions are also eminently practical: any production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream must answer each one. They have been answered in myriad ways, by myriad dreamers, for over four centuries.

And what a scale at which to dream! Would that we could all, like the fairy queen Titania of the 1935 film, slip into a silken-fringed negligee before drooping into a bower of flowers and bidding fairy attendants, “Sing me now to sleep.” In the 1999 movie, Michelle Pfeiffer curls into an egg-shaped nest of branches, leaves, and airy blankets, suspended via cables above a stony Nabataean enclave dotted with grassy tufts and flowery wisps. A 2019 Bridge Theater production contrasted this airy look by sending a giant four-poster bed floating above the stage, replete with pillows and blankets.

Some iterations of Titania’s bed seem strictly less desirable. Peter Hall’s 1969 production sees a very stately, but also very green, Judi Dench exfoliating with reeds and grasses before sinking into a pile of damp-looking moss; once her eyes flutter closed, her attendants bedeck her with asparagus ferns. Perhaps we all envision dreams a bit differently. Sean Holmes’s 2021 revival, which reopened the Globe Theater after a painful pandemic closure, underscores this point. Amid an eye-popping carnival scene channeling piñatas, Bauhaus, and the 1970’s, Titania’s “flow’ry bed” emerges, a triumphant neon blue wheelie bin bursting with multi-colored streamers. A standard twin never looked more restful. 

Wheelie bin or floating nest, audience envy at Titania’s repose will likely prove short-lived. Even the glamorous Titania of 1935 awakes to fall in love with James Cagney, a dubious fate in any movie, compounded in this instance by his transformation into a donkey. Not all dreams, in other words, are good ones. And if Judi Dench’s bed looks a bit, well, damp, other sleeping spots are worse; the fairy jester Puck disdains the “dank and dirty ground” where sleep befalls Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena, four lovers wandering the forest by night. Just as Titania’s bed indexes how a given Midsummer production envisions fairyland, these lowlier beds reveal each production’s take on sleep—its necessity; its vulnerability; the irrelevance, once sleep befalls, of fancy trappings. As they lie down, the lovers bemoan the sleep that impends as “weary” or “woeful” or even—at one point—“death-counterfeiting.” They snooze in bracken, or on the hard stage floor, in brambles, or perilously close to water, sometimes still clutching the bicycles or scooters that carried them into the forest.

We dream together whenever we pause to watch a play, our minds transfigured into something “strange and admirable” (to borrow from Hippolyta).

In closing, Puck suggests that perhaps we have been asleep, too: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber'd here / While these visions did appear.” Puck’s direction that we dismiss the play’s visions as a dream nags in part because it is already true. We dream together whenever we pause to watch a play, our minds transfigured into something “strange and admirable” (to borrow from Hippolyta). Midsummer closes with a play-within-a-play, a comically rough production to which the characters respond with gracious mirth. Dreams, like plays, are partially of our own making (unless a fairy overrules us—poor Demetrius). Falling in love with a donkey, or watching a rotten play, can be dismissed as slumber—and also mended by it. Sleep can be in a fairy bed, or it can be death-counterfeiting collapse in a pile of bracken. However wide a margin the play offers for staging slumber, it holds firm on one point: whether we rest in wheelie bins or bracken, how we choose to regard our dreaming matters as much as the blankets (or ferns) that bedeck our beds. 



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