Michal Lang, the artistic director of Prague’s Divadl pod Palmovka, has been directing William Shakespeare for several times now. After last year’s significant interpretation of the comedy The Taming of the Shrew, the same team has now prepared a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is strongly contemporary and yet close to Elizabethan theatre. It’s an urgent, cruelly jokey spectacle.
Following the model of the Elizabethan theater, the director cast two actors for the female characters of Kateřina and Bianka in The Taming of the Shrew last year. For more sophisticated reasons than just trying to emulate the English Renaissance model. At the end of the production, it became clear that in today’s emancipated world, men have no choice but to play at the “taming” of women. As part of this, however, the actors – similar to the Elizabethans – properly enjoy a series of disguises that allow the exchange of gender and, today, gender identity. At the same time, they quote the singer Freddie Mercury from the famous clip I Want To Break Free, in which he represents a quirky, lascivious housewife in latex.
Similarly, Lang’s team is now dealing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had its premiere at Palmovka last week. In the plot of this festive play, the line of four lovers, the feuding pair of the fairy queen Titania and the king of the elves Oberon intertwine with a group of craftsmen rehearsing a play about Pyramus and Thisbe, which William Shakespeare borrowed as well as other motifs from the Metamorphoses of the ancient Roman poet Publius Ovidius Nasus.
Most of the otherwise very convoluted story takes place in the Athenian forest. It represents an imaginary festive space and time removed from reality, and its essence is “the world upside down”, wrote the leading Czech Shakespearean scholar Martin Hilský, whose translations are used by Michal Lang.
Hilský emphasizes Titania’s essential monologue from the beginning. The queen of fairies talks about the reversed seasons and depicts a surreal image of the end of the world that denies the order of nature, “the order that formed the very essence of the Renaissance view of the world and the universe”, emphasizes Hilský. According to him, the essence of the Midsummer Night’s Dream is precisely the movement from this chaos to order, from an upside-down world to an ordered world.
The same monologue is also decisive for the creators of the production in Palmovka, which, in addition to the director Michal Lang, are the dramaturg Iva Klestilová, the artist Miroslaw Kaczmarek, the choreographer Maćko Prusak and the composer Sebastian Lang. On the basis of this speech, they came to consider the current effects of climate change and nature in general destroyed by civilization. Their Athenian forest is therefore full of garbage, with tires and plastic bottles lying around. The elves and fairies who live here are more like Greenpeace sympathizers, although a little bit like fans of science fiction and fantasy. For example, one wears a Star Wars T-shirt.
Ondřej Veselý as Oberon and Denny Ratajský as Puck. | Photo: Martin Špelda
However, thanks to the spells, the devastated forest soon changes. And here comes the essential element: videomapping. The authors create a magical space by projecting onto the three screens surrounding the stage and occasionally onto the projection film lowered in front of it. Not only is it full of color and ornament, it also denies causality. Characters here suddenly appear and disappear, shrink or multiply. In addition to the physically present inhabitants of the supernatural world, there are various monsters and monsters.
In Libeň’s presentation, the forest is therefore far from a lyrical dream and a fairy tale. It is truly a psychedelic, even terrifying experience. It refers, among other things, to computer games and the current tendency to increasingly escape into virtual reality.
In such a world, the character of Puck is understandably someone completely different from the joking goblin, the Shakespearean jester, or the joker Robin in the service of the king of the elves, Oberon. The mastermind behind all the chaos and confusion bears a striking resemblance to the twisted comic book villain, the Joker. In a red, well-fitting suit, he resembles Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the clown in the 2019 film. The extent to which he oscillates between reality and madness is confirmed by the dialogue that Puk conducts with his alter ego illusively projected on the screen.
At the same time, there is a group of craftsmen, actually storekeepers representing the achievements of consumerism. They will bring shopping baskets full of oversized cotton candy onto the stage to underline the irony of sweet love talk. They then quote slogans from discount events and advertisements.
When they have to reenact a play they have been rehearsing, they wear historical theater costumes with large banners with spray-painted slogans such as Wall, Lion or Lantern – as if quoting the staging practice of the so-called public arenas from Shakespeare’s time, when due to lack of space for decorations, signs were often used indicating the stage or specific prop. At the same time, this group can remind the current trade unionists from the demonstrations.
In addition to the connotations with Elizabethan theater history, here, following the example of Shakespeare, who often drew on antiquity, there is a reference to ancient mythology. In the play, under the influence of a spell, Titania falls in love with the character Klubk, who is then turned into a donkey by Oberon to take revenge on the fairy queen. In Palmovce, Klubko resembles a mythical centaur, half animal, half human.
Among the forest vermin, Baubo appears at one point, an old woman figure from early Greek mythology known as the goddess of merriment and depicted as a sexually liberated being.
Vendula Fialová in the role of Titania and Jan Teplý as Mikuláš Klubko. | Photo: Martin Špelda
The lovers combine an aesthetic variety that is characteristic of the postmodern, strongly influenced creative vision of the author of the set and costumes, Kaczmarek. Both couples are contemporaries, but far more they symbolize a love triangle across epochs. Helena played by Barbora Kubátová, combining white tulle with a black curve and a hoop, looks like a rock star, especially after the excellent performance of the singing song. Hermie, performed by Pavla Gajdošíková, on the other hand, evokes a defiant cat – she only wears underwear under her translucent dress.
Demetrius, portrayed by Jakub Albrecht, resembles a hipster due to his pulled-up sweater, while Jaroslav Blažek’s Lysandr, on the other hand, due to the surroundings and the colorful clothing of the disgruntled lover Pierot from the folk comedy dell’arte.
With this type of Italian Renaissance theater, the new A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as with Elizabethan times, also connects the acting. It is far from ordinary drama, it is very physical. In addition to words, the character’s character is often expressed by stage actions, whether it is the fight between Helena and Hermia in the water, Titania Vendula Fialová’s legs breaking in a rush of passion on high heels, or the opening love games such as a battle with plastic bottles. Here, Theseus, played by František Mitáš, seduces Rosalie Malinská’s Hippolyta.
All of them stand out for the precision of their stage acting, and above all for their stage speech, even though most of the text consists of rhyming verse.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Palmovka is a happy combination of a current reading of a more than four-hundred-year-old play with the principles of Elizabethan theatre. It depends on everyone how many layers and references they can decipher, or whether they get carried away by pure theatricality.
William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Directed by: Michal Lang
Divadlo pod Palmovou, Prague, premiere on April 21, next reruns on May 4 and 16 and again on June 5 and 21.
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