Sam Hodgkins-Sumner ’14 studied theatre and participated in several plays during his time at Upper Canada College. His involvement included directing Milton’s Paradise Lost and reviewing Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in his final year.
Hopkins-Sumner returned to the College last week to review the UCC/The Bishop Strachan School production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at UCC’s David Chu Theatre. Here are his thoughts on how the students handled the 522-year-old comedy:
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.”
Since the Enlightenment, the West has seen an expansion of individual rights — notwithstanding times of war, totalitarian regimes and periodic political backlash. This change has certainly been manifest in the realm of relationships and sexuality. There’s been a turn from arranged marriages to romantic love, the introduction of the birth control pill and the legalization of gay marriage. As a corollary to the personal freedoms we enjoy, it’s natural to assume that it’s easier now to attain the satisfaction of romantic desires — be they deep or not so deep.
But our passions are complex. If Sigmund Freud taught us anything, it’s that our most true selves lie in the dreams, fantasies and desires we don’t often engage with rationally. If modern research on neuroplasticity teaches us anything, it’s that the brain is a highly complex and malleable thing. Hence Thales of Miletus’ claim that to know one’s self is the most difficult undertaking that human beings face.
Shakespeare was aware that desire can be a confounding force. His A Midsummer Night’s Dream is chock-full of the reason-effacing passions that seethe in lovers’ brains.
After fleeing into the woods, Hermia and Demetrius are ostensibly free to enjoy their romance after escaping Egeus’ patriarchal grasp. However, these two lovers — along with Helena, Lysander and Bottom — find themselves constantly beguiled and bewitched by the magic of fairies. As a result of fantasies, illusions and misperceptions, characters in the play dramatically idolize and abuse one another.
I thought that this year’s UCC/BSS classical production was effective in portraying how illusion feeds desire and desire feeds illusion.
Musicians Flynn Tanner and Rob Walker set a subtly supernatural mood throughout the play. The soft and ethereal quality of their playing mirrored the enchantments and ravings occurring onstage: simultaneously other-wordly and all too familiar.
Having myself acted in a Shakespearean production at UCC, I appreciate the difficulty of engaging with the text. Two-thirds of the battle is learning and understanding your lines. Then comes annunciation, authentic relationships with other characters, motivations, and the list goes on. It’s tough. In light of that difficulty, I truly appreciated the command with which Joseph Hill (Puck) and Kathryn Fraser (Titania) delivered their lines.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic energy and disinhibition with which Kohilan Partamaanantham (Bottom) and the rest of the rude mechanicals brought to the production. Partamaanantham was brimming with misguided exuberance and poignant earnestness throughout the play.
Ultimately, the most compelling aspect of the production was the dynamic among the actors playing the four lovers: Hermia (Caelan Mestel), Demetrius (Nick Czegledy), Lydsander (Max Allen) and Helena Isabel Coleman). At first, I was slightly skeptical of the tone with which they squabbled. All of the chest-puffing, dramatic sighing and hysterical timbre felt a little “high school.” Yet, as I was sitting in David Chu Theatre, I had an epiphany: considering the context in which Shakespeare penned the play, this angsty portrayal seemed strangely appropriate.
Although the average age of marriage during the Renaissance was actually much higher than we often assume, A Midsummer Night’s Dream mirrors Romeo and Juliet in its archetypal depiction of children resisting their parents’ edicts. In light of this similarity, it’s safe to assume that the lovers in the play are in their teens. It makes sense, then, that Helena fawns so masochistically over Lysander, calling herself his “spaniel.” Hermia’s fierce refusal to relinquish her “soul’s sovereignty” also reflects an adolescent spirit.
How fitting it is that high school students put on such a play, and in so doing held a mirror up to their own lived experience. In this age of Instagram, Tinder and mass media, relationships are coloured heavily by illusion, facade and impulsive (mis)communication.
In a world where so many forces vie for and attempt to manipulate our desires, Thales’ ethos of self-knowledge becomes near impossible. Life as a millennial (without any intent to incur pity) can leave one feeling like you’re wandering through a forest of visions and enchantments.