Saturday, September 19, 2020

351. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (2 revivals). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Sara Kestelman, Alan Howard.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: Peter Brook; S/C: Sally Jacobs; L: Lloyd Burlingame; M: Richard Peaslee; P: David Merrick Arts Foundation in the Royal Shakespeare Company Stratford-upon-Avon Production; T: Billy Rose Theatre; 1/20/71-3/13/71 (62); Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 3/16/71-3/27/71 (16: total: 78)

Ralph Cotterill, Celia Quicke, Sara Kestelman, Hugh Keays Byrne/ 

The early 70s birthed two A-level revivals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first being one of the most acclaimed Shakespeare revivals of modern times. This was Peter Brook’s revolutionary interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, brought to New York in its original Royal Shakespeare Company version/ It generated a considerable degree of critical attention, mostly, but not entirely, positive.

The physical trappings were completely unlike the conventional romantic woodland environment associated with the Dream. Instead, Sally Jacobs’s set was a stark white box, resembling a squash court (or asylum, to John Simon), with several narrow black ladders leading from the stage floor to the overhead platforming atop the walls from which the fairies and musicians could observe the action below.

White lighting made the effect even more strikingly bright. Costumes were vaguely suggestive of contemporary “mod” styles, being made largely of brightly colored satins, with tie-dyed shirts and blouses for the lovers. Cushions were strewn on the floor, trees were created by having the overhead fairies dangle large coiled wire props from fishing pole-like handles, actors sat on and swung from trapezes, circus techniques like spinning disks on slender rods were introduced, and, taking a cue from au courant Polish critic Jan Kott’s understanding of the play as an expression of a darkly pulsating repressed eroticism, phallic gestures and hints of bestiality were scattered about.

Alan Howard, Sara Kestelman, David Waller, John Kane.

Bottom wore no traditional ass’s head, but instead a clown’s black, spherical nose, ass’s ears, and hoof-like clogs to effect his transformation. An atmosphere of circus foolery, magic, and acrobatics suffused the show. Notwithstanding, the dialogue was delivered in conventional Shakespearean tones.

Panegyrics ranged from Clive Barnes’s breathless “This is without equivocation whatsoever the greatest production of Shakespeare I have ever seen in my life,” to Jack Kroll’s affirmation that this was “one of the most beautiful Shakespearean productions of our lifetime.” “[A] work of theatrical genius,” sang John J. O’Connor, while Martin Gottfried harmonized that it was “a great show and a major theatrical event.”

The acting and décor came in for a great share in the feast of hyperbole being spread about so freely. Be that as it may, several critics did point to disturbing features, and a few others were reluctant to find anything at all to praise. A serious bone of contention was that, given the undisputed talent of Brook at brewing up a cauldron of unusual conceptions, the reasons for his interpolations often remained vague or simply ill-judged.

Douglas Watt was convinced the show was tricked out with too many clever notions, that they were self-conscious, destructive of the play’s poetic lyricism, and excessively coarse and broad. Harold Clurman had no quarrel with Brook’s concoctions, but seriously questioned his literary insights. He also denied that the actors’ speech was consistently clear or interesting. Brendan Gill decried the players’ physical unattractiveness, and found that the clouded motives of the staging left him “exhausted” and his mind “exacerbated.” Walter Kerr did not grasp Brook’s purposes; though he often accepted the ideas as amusing, he could not bring himself to substitute them for the playwright’s. He added that the dialogue was rushed, the comedy rough, the intellectual aspects blunted, the troupe devoid of personality, and the direction intrusive. And John Simon claimed that such “injudicious experimentation” was dangerous in the theatre, and that, “Alas, a Brook for a Shakespeare is not a fair exchange.”

Cavils aside, the production earned an Outer Circle Award for Outstanding Production, a Drama Desk Award for Brook’s Outstanding Direction, a Tony for Best Director, Play, a Variety Poll nod for Best Direction, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Scenic Designer, and a Tony nomination for Best Scenic Design.

Ralph Cotterill, John York, Celia Quicke, Sara Kestelman.

Brook’s cast—with several names still lighting up stages and screens—included Alan Howard as Theseus/Oberon, Sara Kestelman as Hippolyta/Titania, John Kane as Philostrate/Puck, Philip Locke as Egeus/Quince, David Waller as Bottom, Patrick Stewart as Snout, Mary Rutherford as Hermia, Terence Taplin as Lysander, Frances De La Tour as Helena, and Ben Kingsley as Demetrius.


D: Edward Berkeley; MS: Donald Saddler; DS: Santo Loquasto; L: Jennifer Tipton; M: William Pen; P: New York Shakespeare Festival Lincoln Center; T: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre (OB); 1/19/75-3/16/75 (62)

George Hearn, Kathleen Widdoes.

Edward Berkeley’s “youthful, frolicsome approach,” as Mel Gussow called it, to the Dream met with glowing approval, sneering disapproval, and a case or two of critical fence-sitting. Berkeley had chosen to stress the elements of broad humor in this romantic comedy by giving his players their head and allowing them to have as much fun as he hoped the audience would gain from watching them. “It gives raw enthusiasm a break,” smiled Christopher Sharp.

Michael Sacks, Toni Wein, Richard Gere, Lucy Lee Flippen.

Santo Loquasto’s spare setting consisted chiefly of several tall, slender aluminum poles topped by electrically lit globes that could move down the poles to suggest a relocation in space. Douglas Watt thought it looked “stylish and pleasingly romantic,” but Clive Barnes kept thinking it resembled Washington Square Park. John Beaufort said he was reminded of “a mod apartment house lobby.” The costumes, except for some modish touches—tight black slacks for Titania (Kathleen Widdoes), for example—were in period.

Edward Hermann, Roberts Blossom, Richard Ramos.

Berkeley’s farce concept led to much rambunctious behavior among the magically confused lovers. The Pyramus and Thisbe scene had all the stops pulled out. Puck (Larry Marshall) was played by a black actor with all the sass of an urban street kid. Helena (Lucy Lee Flippen) chattered in baby talk, and Bottom (Richard Ramos) was what Barnes dubbed “the hammiest of ham actors.”

Douglas Watt wrote that the revival “presents so pretty a picture and has such an affectionate nature that one is inclined to overlook the occasional stiff readings.” He was not equally pleased by all the performances, but neither were his colleagues, nearly all of whom noted various discrepancies in the casting. Very few of the actors could speak the lines clearly and with deep understanding. Among those actors were Marlene Warfield as Hippolyta, Jack Davidson as Egeus, Michael Sacks as Lysander, Richard Gere as Demetrius (yes, Richard Gere), Toni Wein as Hermia, Roberts Blossom as Snout, Edward Hermann as Flute, and George Hearn as Oberon.

Tim Michaels, Arthur DeLorenzo, Stephen Austin,Gwendolyn Smith, Kathleen Widdoes.

This Dream was “an earthbound affair” to Beaufort, and John Simon deemed it a “disaster” for having cut out one-third of the play to replace the poetry with “oodles of horseplay.” Yet Martin Gottfried argued that the show was Shakespeare’s play as Shakespeare wrote it, a “faithfully” sublime rendering that came off as “perfectly delicious,” and “one of the truest and most enchanting productions of the play I have ever seen.”