The Magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title alone informs the audience that they are entering a world quite unlike their own, one in which conventional rules do not apply. Fleeting and whimsical, dreams are a happy respite from the stultifying order of everyday existence. Similarly, the play creates a realm in which different laws are at work. Laws that are predicated around the reality of magic and the existence of fairies.

Gentle and humorous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves its spell so subtly that an audience can believe fairy interference to be the most natural thing in the world. We all, of course, suspend disbelief when viewing a work of fiction, but my experience of watching the play goes beyond that: I feel myself fully inhabiting a world in which a magical worldview is the norm and the mild, teasing uncertainty of what is and is not real pokes, like tendrils, into my life engagement at large. Just like the play itself, what is ultimately “reality” is in question. One lesson I take away from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that, in some cases, if we can never know for sure what is real and what is not, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the possibilities to be explored, the ideas to be considered and the creative and intellectual stimulation provided from an open approach.

Some have noted the disparity between the use of magic in the play and societal attitudes at the time of its writing. Since the decimation of the witchcraft-practicing communities of Pagan Britain and the establishment of the Church as the single spiritual authority, attitudes towards the practice of magic had typically been hostile: it was regarded as innately sinister and performed only for evil intent. Shakespeare’s use of magic, however, is much more benevolent; Puck is pure mischief, with no real malice, and the spells used, while creating confusion and chaos, ultimately cause no real harm. Any potential disaster – such as the suggested duel between Lysander and Demetrius – is averted by the fairies, and all is restored to rights in the end. Shakespeare even has the fairies use magic explicitly for good; in the final stage of the play, they perform a blessing for the human characters. This reflects a more nuanced view of magic than is commonly accredited to the time period – that magic is morally neutral and can be used for both good and bad. It can cause harm but also repair harm. Or it can simply be light-hearted and fun.

This perspective may seem incongruous when looked at in the context of the prevailing views of the time, but exceptions existed even within that narrow way of thinking. Cunning folk, or folk healers, who essentially practiced spells and other forms of witchcraft, were common throughout Britain, and it was not unusual for people to turn to them for their health needs or for positive magical acts such as protection spells. John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and therefore one of the most powerful individuals of his age, was heavily involved in the practice of occultism, including attempts to contact and channel disembodied entities – his famous scrying equipment can still be seen on display in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s Prospero may have been inspired directly by Dee.  If you searched hard enough, you could find pockets of society that not only tolerated magic but actually celebrated and practiced it – was this what Shakespeare was drawing upon when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Ultimately, I believe that the magic is a large part of what makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so popular and enduring – its prodding and twisting and bending of what is possible, its acting as instrument for delivery from the impersonally structured sequences of everyday living. The ambiguous nature of the tale is a reflection of some of the deepest philosophical questions – some things, people can never know for sure, and that is perfectly all right. 

Q&A With Richard James

richard-james_249We caught up with professional actor & playwright Richard James to find out what life is like on the road. Richard is currently touring in the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny and while at home for a well-earned Christmas break took some time out to talk to us…

How long have you been touring with Gangsta Granny now and how many performances have you done?

Gangsta Granny has been on the road since November 2015. Touring to a different town each week, we’ve played 416 performances in 46 different venues. By the time we finish in the West End next year, we will have performed the show over 650 times.

Have you missed any performances for any reason?

Whilst other cast members hajs78314461ve been off with various illnesses over that time, I’m lucky enough not to have missed a single show so far.

Of all the theatres you’ve played in so far, do you have a favourite? And if so, why?

Touring can be quite monotonous, especially with two shows a day, so any venue or town with something different to offer is always welcome. I particularly enjoy towns with a bit of history to them so I think Canterbury would be a firm favourite. I also enjoy seaside venues and Bournemouth in the summer was fun. Whilst we may not have a great deal of time to explore, it’s sometimes worth the effort to travel a little further afield if possible. With an evening show on our first day in Belfast, a number of us hired a car and drove to the Giant’s Causeway for the afternoon.

Can you give us an idea of what a typical day on Gangsta Granny is like? And how do you fill the time between shows?

A typical day would start with the cast and crew assembling on stage at 9.30am for notes and warm-up. Then it’s into costume for our first show of the day, usually at 10.30. This is typically a school’s matinee so the curtain often rises late as we wait for coaches to arrive. Morning shows often have a very different feel to evening performances as we could find ourselves performing to a thousand lively school children. The curtain comes down at around 12.45, and it’s time to head out to the High Street for some lunch. Following this, I might try and get some writing done (I’ve almost completed my third play this year), catch up on some correspondence, do a little sightseeing or join with some cast members to catch up on some TV together. At 7pm the curtain rises on the second show of the day followed by a bus home to my digs or a quick drink in a local bar.

Do you still have to rehearse at all or does the show look after itself now?

The show looks after itself in the main. We may run a couple of sequences as we arrive at each new venue as the dimensions of the stage or wing space may alter slightly but there is no ‘tech run’ as such. In addition to this, we have understudy rehearsals each week, usually on a Friday. This in effect means we are doing three shows one after the after, making for a very tiring day!

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Of all your professional engagements, which is the most memorable and why?

I’m lucky enough to have worked on a variety of projects, from tv and film to theatre and radio. I’ve worked with some heroes along the way too, whether it be on a Doctor Who adventure with Peter Davison or with Burt Reynolds on a movie. I was lucky enough to have some scenes with Helena Bonham Carter on a film version of Great Expectations and I learned a lot from watching her work. I suppose my most formative experience was spending a year under prosthetic makeup to play an alien police officer in Gerry Anderson’s last live-action sci-fi series, Space Precinct.

You started off in amateur dramatics, would you say that it’s a good starting place for someone interested in theatre as a career?

I have never been as busy as when I was an amateur actor! As a man on the amdram circuit you are always in demand and I remember going from production to production. In one year I might have appeared in productions with SIMADS, Huntingdon Drama Club, Brampton Park Theatre Club and Shakespeare at the George. As a professional actor, work is much harder to come by as the talent pool is so much larger. I found my experiences in amateur theatre to be invaluable. It allowed me to grow as a young actor and improve my stage craft. As a company member it is imperative that you do the work with a professional attitude, that you are disciplined in your approach and do your best to get on with those around you – particularly if you’re on the road with them for the best part of two years!

Find out more about Richard’s work by visiting his website www.richardjamesonline.com  and follow him on Twitter @RichardNJames

Find out more about the Gangsta Granny tour here.