There’s just a bed on an empty stage. A little man dressed as an old-timey mime comes in and lays on the bed. Suddenly, a tree grows from under the stage, its branches catch the mattress and elevate it. As it starts getting higher, the sheets spread across the stage and over the public. They form a screen above the audience. The screen reads: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
That’s how Julie Taymor has decided to start her latest production, a rather beautiful adaptation of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous comedy. This initial image is characteristic of Taymor, whose work has always had a big emphasis on production design. Be it the influence of puppetry and African art in her stage version of The Lion King, or her anachronistic movie adaptation of Titus, she seems to always have been interested in telling the story through images as much as through dialogue. And there is no denying she is really good at it. The strongest moments of The Lion King, for example, rely as much on the beautiful musical arrangements as they do in the wonder of seeing the artificial creatures created by Taymor and her collaborators parade through the stage.
When she gives attention to developing the material, as she did in her Titus, the results are wonderful, seamlessly mixing content with imagery. Lately, though, it seems she has been focusing too much on the visuals and too little in the content of her work. Her musical comic-book adaptation Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark went through an accident-ridden production and debuted to terrible reviews. I haven’t seen that production, but I can speak to the mediocity of her latest film work, which includes Across the Universe, a bland homage to The Beatles, and an atrocious adaptation of The Tempest starring Helen Mirren. Both movies are all style and no substance, and thus, almost unwatchable. I am happy, then, to report that those kind of issues are absent from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Out of all of Shakespeare’s work, this feels like the most obvious pairing for Taymor, what with all the fairies and magic featured in the play. The strength of the production, however, is the economy and (relative) restrain Taymor has decided to go through. She has said in interviews that the production of Spider-Man, and the constant accidents that came out of the special effects, were exhausting. There are also wires and flying characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but a high level of minimalism has been applied to the special effects and design elements. At least more so than in any work of hers I’ve seen before. Take, for instance, how some of the most beautiful imagery of the show is achieved through the use of bamboo stocks and a waving bed sheets.
Take, also, how Taymor and her actors aren’t afraid of having long passages that don’t feature any kinds of effects. The players makes great use of Shakespeare’s writing and some of the best and most entertaining moments rely almost exclusively int he interaction between the members of this cast. This might sound obvious to fans of Shakespearean theater, but it is frustrating how many bland productions of Shakespere’s comedies I’ve seen in the past. Especially highly stylized ones. I am deeply satisfied to have seen that Taymor, and everyone involved in this production, seem to have put as much effort in making a good version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and not only an original one.