It is difficult to think of summers in Vancouver without Bard on the Beach, our annual Shakespeare festival. Twenty-five years ago, Bard began its history in the city with a modest single production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since then, the festival has grown bigger and, in most cases, better. It seems entirely fitting, then, for Bard to celebrate its 25th summer by revisiting this divine comedy yet again.
From the outset of the performance, it seems clear that director Dean Paul Gibson and costume designer Mara Gottler are aiming for maximum silliness and raunchiness in effect. Hermia and Helena appear in tight-fitting corsets, and Puck dresses throughout in ballet tutu, complete with punk hairdo. A friend remarked that this is a reference to A Rocky Horror Picture Show. Indeed, there are numerous pop culture references throughout the evening. Laughs were milked by slapstick antics that became outdated even in Hollywood decades ago with shows like I Love Lucy and The Three Stooges. Moreover, the production was saturated with sexual innuendoes and double entendre, which would have been acceptable, even funny, if they are done with taste, with cleverness, and if they serve the play.
Rather than using Shakespeare’s immortal and oh-so-beautiful words to elevate us from our everyday existence, the production appears to be aiming at the lowest possible common denominator. If the director thinks that dumbing-down Shakespeare would make the play appeal to a younger audience, he has seriously underestimated what young people are capable of.
Regarding the female characters, I believe the director is aiming to portray these women with assertiveness. However, Gibson seems to have mistaken assertiveness with vulgarity. In the confrontation between Hermia and Helena in Act III, the actors were shouting their lines like men and women in the fish market haggling over the price of the latest catch. Shakespeare, like Mozart in his operas, has always endowed his female characters with wit, with cleverness, and with confidence. The concept of the current production has, to me, robbed the female characters of their true beauty and, more importantly, dignity.
This attempt to update this, probably Shakespeare’s most timeless play, has robbed Midsummer Night’s Dream of all its magical elements. By the time the performance reaches Act V, the play-within-the-play - the “tragedy” of Thisby and Pyramus - feels very tedious with even further attempts at slapstick humour more appropriate for a Christmas pantomime by an amateur theatrical company.
At the end of the performance, I did not feel a sense of wonder, or of joy. I did wonder what, if any, is the director’s concept for the production? Surely there is more to this great Shakespeare play than just to elicit a few laughs from the audience? By the time the performance reaches Puck’s beautiful final monologue, I could not wait to escape into the beautiful summer evening.
Just a few days later, on the same stage, I witnessed a production of Twelfth Night, given by the young players of Bard on the Beach youth programme (“Young Bard”). For me, the enthusiasm and earnestness of the young actors make the performance a much more joyful and joy-filled experience than what the professional players had accomplished a few nights before. Personally, this performance of “unadulterated” Shakespeare is closer to what the playwright had in mind.
In this 25th anniversary season, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze should feel justifiably proud of what the festival has accomplished. I do hope, however, that Gaze would also carefully examine the future direction for the festival. Rather than using Shakespeare to further whatever personal or political agenda of the director, should they not be directing their talents toward bringing us, the audience, into new and wondrous discoveries and insights into Shakespeare’s heart and soul?