An Experiment with Shakespeare

August 1, 2013 / by Louisa Proske


Some years ago, upon hearing it performed in an acting class, Titania’s great speech “These are the forgeries of jealousy” struck me with the apocalyptic anarchy of its images, which depict a world coming undone because a deeply interdependent ecosystem has been disrupted. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to attack A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the perspective of our generation – a generation whose plight is to have been born into a dying world, into a dawning age of disasters and catastrophes, heralded by droughts, heat waves, superstorms, tsunamis, and contaminated groundwater – and a generation whose guilt is to live our lives more or less as if this wasn’t true, following instead our selfish pursuits of hedonistic pleasure and individual fulfillment.

What happens when the ecosystem of Shakespeare’s quintessential nature-play is under attack? It is uncanny to listen to Titania’s words and recall recent televised disasters:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs; which falling in the land

Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,

The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn

Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;

The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

And crows are fatted with the murrion flock.

Later on, it seems as though she was foretelling global warming and the resulting climate change:

And thorough this distemperature we see

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts

Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown

An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds

Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which.

For our Wedge show, we were encouraged by Stephanie to think big and risk failure, to experiment with an idea that was truly daring, that we might not be able to try in a setting with higher stakes. It seemed like a great context in which to pursue this idea of reinterpreting Midsummer in an age of disasters.

Around the same time, I saw the movie Spring Breakers by Harmony Korine, and I was wondering a lot about this mindless submission to some fascistic imperative of pleasure that is depicted in the teenagers in the film, and this idea of “partying at the end of the world,” of numbing yourself to the horrors around you, through drugs, through escapism …. What if the lovers in Midsummer were running away from some kind of existential emptiness and boredom, rather than from a tyrannical father? What if the forest was some kind of end-time party paradise where the lovers, drug-fuelled and rabid with desires, spiral into an abyss of ecstasy, violence and mutual abuse, blind to the larger cosmic destruction around them?


This idea of a “party-generation” polluting their bodies with chemicals and drowning out the world with auto-tuned computer-generated music that has itself lost all connection to human-ness suddenly started to connect in all kinds of ways to images and reports of the large-scale destruction and mutation that our planet is facing. Mega-scale foam parties evoked tsunami floods. The new fashion of glow-in-the-dark neon jewelry and accoutrements made clubbers look like radioactive beings. And so on …..

Why are we blind to the world getting destroyed in front of our very eyes? This started to be the question of the project … If the lovers were blinded by hedonism, Titania and Oberon were blinded by money and the pursuit of power. In a post-nature world, I imagined them to be corrupt politicians selling off the land for their own personal gain, politicians with an impenetrably charming public face, and a lustful, ravenous, perverse relationship behind closed doors. Stylistically, they were also in a different world – a kind of Robert Wilson-esque, ritualized dance of power. I gave the costume designer free reign to push them as far as possible, so Titania had a dress made of plastic, and both of them had their lips and eyebrows coated with gold leaf ….


Within this madness, Puck was the voice of truth, of truthful questioning. Furthest removed from the figure in the play, she was the witness of the other figures’ crimes and deterioration, as well as the prophet of the end-times.


At the closure of the piece, the four lovers and Titania and Oberon erupted into a manic dance of chaos executed to pumping electronic music, enacting heatwaves, earthquakes, floods, superstorms that now lived within their bodies, while Puck stood on the balcony with a microphone, repeating Titania’s speech, which had now become truth:

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.