Re-fashioning belief in Shakespeare’s fairies

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Principal fairies Heidi Silberman as Oberon, Helen Way as Puck and Kat Smalley as Titania. Photo: Holly Treadaway.

It’s a sad but true fact that most Canberrans don’t believe in fairies.

That’s a problem the director of Lakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Tim Sekuless has been grappling with as he works to make the world’s most famous fairy play credible for Canberra audiences in the coming “Shakespeare by the Lakes” season, free to the public.

Generations of schoolchildren have been willing enough to suspend their belief as the warring spirits, Oberon and Titania, battle it out in the netherworld while down on the ground two pairs of mortal lovers do exactly the same thing. And even cynical Aussie schoolkids “get” the rustic Mechanicals of Athens, who are rehearsing the tragic play-within-a-play, “Pyramus and Thisbe”.

But Sekuless is keen to have audiences genuinely believing what’s going on in Shakespeare’s “Dream”, even though the tight cast of eight will double roles, meaning that all the subsidiary fairies will go, along with Duke Theseus and his consort Hippolyta.

“I don’t want the audience to see the fairies as a part of the real world,” he says as our photographer Holly Treadaway and the actors playing the three principal fairies horse around among the bushes of Glebe Park, one of four venues where the “Dream” will play.

Sekuless has been delving into books about Tír na hÓige, the Celtic or Saxon otherworld, and is well aware that in Shakespeare’s time, the spirit world was considered real. In an animistic world, for instance, Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, was commonly blamed if the milk curdled, if women miscarried or if some climatic disaster occurred and Shakespeare’s play makes it clear that changes in the seasons are the result of marital dissension in the spirit world.

Kat Smalley as Titania, Helen Way as Puck and Heidi Silberman as Oberon. Photo: Holly Treadaway.

“But our fairies have a magic of a different flavour,” he explains. “Magic becomes the subtle psychological forces in modern life.”

He’s been considering contemporary society, social media and the influencers who turn all of us into their playthings through the fashion-cycles and political bed-hopping that are just as ridiculous as goings-on in the Athenian forest.

“I was looking at the way the fashion seasons change to fit new trends, the way we have become brand conscious, this is the metaphor of the show.”

The highlight of “the season” will be the big Athenian fashion show, for which the tradespeople, here seen as back-stage workers, are preparing. It’s a challenge which costume designer Fiona Hopkins is relishing.

Sekuless has taken a good look at Shakespeare’s text and while he says he’s not riding roughshod over it, he’s tightened it to 90 minutes, all with the agreement of his producer and sister Lexi Sekuless, known as a ferocious adherent to all things Shakespearean.

He’s also having Oberon, normally male, played by a woman as a woman, but still powerful and still the master of shadows.

It’s a comedy, sure, but he acknowledges the nasty aspects of the plot. Because Titania refuses to yield up a little Indian boy she’s adopted, she is drugged and made to sleep with a donkey, funny in Shakespeare’s time but not now. Likewise, Hermia is rejected by Lysander after she refuses to sleep with him. When they come out of the forest the lovers are totally baffled about their relationships, addressing their other halves as “mine own, but not mine own”.

Sekuless has been dwelling on the loss of choice and loss of identity in both the play and modern life, also seen when the Mechanicals struggle to take on other identities in their rehearsals.

Purists can breathe a sigh of relief. Even though Sekuless has cut the opening scene involving Hermia’s father and the Duke, it’s pretty much the Bard, with a few pronouns changed to fit the gender.

Principal fairies from Lakespeare III “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

And for those fearful that the poetry will be gone in this outdoor Shakespearean dream – certainly not.

If you want an apt metaphor for the imagination, go no further than Theseus’ last great monologue, now spoken by Oberon: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact.”

“I hope it makes everyone think,” Sekuless says.

Lakespeare III “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Tuggeranong Town Park, 6.30pm, Friday-Saturday February 14-15; Kambri at ANU, 6.30pm, Sunday, February 16; Glebe Park, 6.30pm, Friday, February 21; and Patrick White Lawns, near National Library, 4.30pm, Saturday-Sunday, February 22-23. FREE, but bookings essential at Eventbrite.com.au and enter “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

A ticketed dinner and show version of the production, “Shakespeare by the Vines” will be held at Pialligo Estate from February 27-28. All details at lakespeare.com

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