A midsummer delight

She was, I would judge, about 18 (though I am a very bad judge of ages). Anyway, she was wearing the full uniform, hot pants and all. She was bright and alive, and walked as though she owned the earth, as I suppose she did. She turned to her friend. "It makes you want to jump up and down with happiness", she said.

She was, as was I, coming out of the auditorium of the Aldwych Theatre. We had just seen Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I, too, felt that I wanted to jump up and down with happiness, and so, as far as I could see, did everybody else in the audience. It had been the same last year at Stratford; I suppose the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's audience is about as variegated as any you could find anywhere, and on that occasion included, as was clear to the most casual glance, old and young, rich and poor, American tourists, assiduous playgoers from London, crocodiles of schoolgirls, youngsters who had hitch-hiked there and queued for standing-room, staid Stratford burghers, butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers - more than 1000 people who before the performance had had nothing whatever in common, but after it had the memory of a great shared rapture. Throughout the enormous lobby, I recall, there was nothing to be seen but smiles wreathing every face: some, it was evident, had no idea what had just happened to them, except that it had been profoundly moving and entirely marvellous. And so it was at the Aldwych, though justice compels me to point out that the playing has broadened too far in places; there is mugging and grimacing that there was not before and - a small but ominous clue - Bottom's malapropisms are banged home (there is not a more fearful - tiny pause - wildfowl than your lion living") with a lack of subtlety that is distressing. A visit from Mr Brook is due.

Deep Regret

That said, I only know of two people who have failed entirely to respond at any level to this unique experience. One is a notorious fool. The other, as it fell out, is a dearly-loved friend of mine from abroad, a celebrated novelist, whom I had not seen for years, and whom I not only took to it, but promised untold delights from it. She (who is no fool) hated it implacably from beginning to end. (It says much for the power of Mr Brook's work of art that, although there is normally nothing more certainly destructive of pleasure at a play than the knowledge that one's companion is disliking it intensely, on this occasion the waves of unhappiness pouring over me from the seat at my immediate left had no effect on my enjoyment at all; they produced only a feeling of deep regret that she could not share it.)

Close students of my style will by now have realised that I have spent an unusually long time setting the scene before getting down to the business in hand, which is an attempt to explain what is the theatrical, psychological and emotional miracle that Mr Brook has wrought, and how he has wrought it. But I fear that the rest of this column is going to be little more than scene-setting, too. For I do not know what the miracle is, nor how it is done.

When you come to think of it, it is odd that a theatrical production should give happiness anyway. Pleasure, certainly, in seeing a play done well or with insight: but why the impulse to jump up and down? A Midsummer Night's Dream has a happy ending, of course: several in fact. But we never believe for a moment that the quartet of lovers will not get themselves sorted out in time (and in any case Mr Brook almost throughout refuses to let them take their predicament seriously). But I, like the rest of the audience, came out with exactly the same feeling that I have at the Marriage of Figaro - a feeling of rebirth into a new, cleansed, world of love and joy. I can quite literally imagine someone having a religious experience at this production, so confident is it in its assertion that God's in his heaven, all's right with the world. It would be foolish to say that this effect has been achieved by Mr Brook rather than by Shakespeare. Certainly, I have seen at least a dozen productions of the play, and enjoyed many greatly without ever experiencing what I did at this one: but the joy must have been there in the play all the time - Mr Brook has merely (merely!) released it.


Then, one can search in the details of Mr Brook's approach for a clue, still without finding it. The doubling of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania and Puck/Philostrate seems so unarguably right that I marvel it has never been done before; it adds another layer of awareness to this play of so many double meanings. But that is not the answer, any more than is the deep vein of eroticism that Mr Brook has mined in a play productions of which have too often ignored it. The mechanicals are funnier than ever (there is an ever-memorable moment in which Lion goes enchantingly berserk, and another in which Moon deservedly brings the house down), but they have been funny in the past. The wonderful leave-taking of the play and the audience (the actors come through the auditorium, shaking applauding hands) is deeply moving, but the trick, whatever it is, has been done long before they get to that point. The task is as impossible as describing music in words. If Peter Brook's achievement could be analysed successfully, it would have been a book about A Midsummer Night's Dream, not a production of it: if the spirit of the G Minor Symphony could be conveyed in words it would be a poem. Let us then stop trying to do the impossible, thank Mr Brook, and jump up and down. Which seems as good a note as any on which to close down this column for a month, as I go off on holiday.

Bernard Levin

The Times, 30.9.71.


Playing Shakespeare/Dream