In the summer of 1595 — or maybe it was 1596, nobody knows for sure — a young English playwright woke up from a weird and wonderful dream and started writing it all down as fast as he could, before the dream faded.
In this dream the Duke of Athens, Theseus, is preparing to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. Most improbably, a group of Athenian artisans with no acting experience, Peter Quince the carpenter, Nick Bottom the weaver, Francis Flute the bellows-mender, Robin Starveling the tailor, Tom Snout the tinker and Snug the joiner, all decide to put on a play at the Duke’s wedding. They meet secretly in a nearby forest to rehearse, unaware that the forest is inhabited by all manner of faeries and elves with names like Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed who are ruled by a King, Oberon, and a Queen, Titania, and kept stirred up by a mischievous hobgoblin, Puck, who delights in sowing confusion among humans and faeries alike.
Meanwhile the beauteous Hermia and her lover Lysander have decided to flee through this same forest at night to prevent Hermia from being put to death for refusing to marry her father’s friend Demetrius, who hears of their elopement and follows them into the forest, himself pursued by another lovely young woman, Helena, who is in love with Demetrius. (OK so far?)
Puck nearly causes a catastrophe (or several) by strewing his love-potion into the wrong people’s eyes, so that Queen Titania falls in love with Nick Bottom the weaver, who has acquired a donkey’s head, while Lysander and Demetrius fight over Helena, in whom neither had shown much interest before. Not to be outdone, gentle Hermia and sweet Helena have an all-out brawl in the woods over one of the guys, I forget which one.
When the artisans start performing their play, they of course make a total mess of it, which is no wonder since they have never done such a thing before in their lives, but the bemused Duke offers them gentle encouragement and in the end they get through the play with their dignity more or less intact, which is an unspectacular but reasonably happy ending.
I must confess that I have long considered William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a sprawling hodge-podge that would have to be cut by three-quarters of an hour if it was ever going to work on the stage. But then on a magic midsummer night in a crumbling Orangerie in a park in a Geneva I saw a very nearly complete and unabridged production in a French translation by Jean-Michel Desprats, a Nanterre University professor who has translated twenty-four Shakespeare plays for the stage, performed by an enthusiastic young cast that believed in Shakespeare’s text and trusted their director Frédéric Polier to guide them through it.
Which just goes to show that Shakespeare really is the greatest, and if you just perform it the way he wrote it you’ll be fine.
Among other things, the ropes in this stage set might represent blades of grass towering above the tiny elves and faeries of the forest.
The translator, Jean-Michel Desprats, has been quoted as saying: “In general, the problem with Shakespeare is that if you translate to be read, it’s unclear on the stage; and if you translate to be performed, it’s unclear on the page. You have to look for the theatrical momentum in the language, to maintain the dramatic energy, identify the moments of acting. Plus the fact that Shakespeare invents, reshapes, creates a language all of his own, and that the French dramatic tradition is so different from the physical theatre of the British.” (quoted from The Observer, July 11, 1999)
This French text in the two-Euro Librio Edition (three Swiss Francs in Switzerland) is not the modern Desprats translation, but an older one by François-Victor Hugo (1828-1873), the fourth son of the great French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885).
After seeing the play in French, I bought this version in Geneva to read on the train on the way home.
In the Orangerie, we spectators sat in the kind of plastic garden chairs you can buy at your local garden supply store, or in Switzerland I suppose at the Migros “Do it+Garden” stores.
As the name implies, the Orangerie was originally used for growing orange trees, or at least protecting them from the elements during the winter. It is a small neo-Greek building dating from the year 1856, and it was intended right from the start to house a small theater during the summer months, when the orange trees were outdoors. After 152 years the building was in dire need of repairs, which were carried out between 2009 and 2011. When I was there in 2008 the air inside was stuffy, so they lent each spectator an ornate hand-fan on the way in, and asked us to give them back on the way out.
This Parc de la Grange, literally “Park of the Barn”, is located on the south side of Lake Geneva and is one of the city’s iconic sights, with its long stretch of lawn sweeping down from the Orangerie all the way (seemingly) to the lake.
From this distance and angle, you can’t see the obnoxious four-lane highway that separates the bottom of the park from the lakeshore.
Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream has also been made into an opera by the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). I have seen this beautiful opera in two different stagings, both in Frankfurt but in different decades. Also, I have the CDs of the original recording from the year 1966, conducted by Britten himself, with Peter Pears as Lysander.
My photos in this post are from 2008. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: The Orangerie in Paris.