INTRO: 00:00:09 Hello and welcome to the Dreamswarm podcast. This is your home for supernatural film stories and art. I'm your host magic realist filmmaker, Andy Mark Simpson. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.
ANDY: 00:00:28 Hello everyone. And welcome to the Dreamswarm podcast. It's this time of year when we can celebrate Midsummer and we're feeling in the mood to be magical so we have a special episode dedicated to William Shakespeare's a Midsummer night's dream, and we're joined by Ben Spiller from the 1623 theater company. Who's gonna discuss the play with us. So Ben, welcome to the podcast.
BEN: 00:00:50 Thanks for having me, Andy. It's lovely to be here.
ANDY: 00:00:52 Yeah. Well, thanks for coming on this time. Yeah. I always think about things around Midsummer, different films and theatre pieces and works of art based around Midsummer. And I think this is kind-of the center piece of those isn't it? Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream? So I'm really pleased that you're coming on. Cause I know you've got a lot of experience in performing this and directing it and leading workshops in it. Would you be able to firstly, before talk about the play, can we learn a bit more about yourself and your company? So would do you give us a quick introduction to yourself?
BEN: 00:01:19 So I'm Ben and I'm the artistic director of 1623, a theatre company of marginalized artists who we're all working for social justice creatively with communities and Shakespeare. So we create shows with communities, whether that's professionals, whether it's people who do it as a hobby, a mixture of people from all different backgrounds, people with protected characteristics and Shakespeare is our main artistic ingredient in what we do. So we mix together lots of different things and we tend not to do full blown productions of Shakespeare's plays, but really focus in on the bits of Shakespeare's plays that really mean something today and what it means to be on the margins of mainstream society and culture. And we do that through like making the show through workshops, through all sorts of creative activities based in DBE, we work locally and regionally and, and across the country and internationally too,
ANDY 00:02:23 Throughout the chat, we are gonna talk more about the play itself, Midsummer Night's Dream, but also how you guys at 1623 have used that as you say, to make it relevant to today and to involve various groups of people in that and explore the themes more deeply. So we'll chat about that work as well as the Shakespeare play itself. So in thinking of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I know it's a very complicated plot, but would you be able to give us a summary of what maybe what the premise of Midsummer Night's Dream is or what the central idea is in the play?
BEN: 00:02:53 You've got three worlds almost going on three, maybe four worlds. You've got these groups of characters that live in these different worlds. You've got the characters that live in the court. So it's the city built up. It's very people-centric. It's quite stifling really ruled over by a duke thesis. Who's just won a war with the Amazon's, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta. And she's now Theseus' prisoner of war. And as part of the peace deal she has to marry him. You've got Hermia and Lysander in love with each other. You've got Helena who likes Demetrius, but Demetrius doesn't like Helena, but you've also got Demetrius who likes Hermia. So you've got this kind of tangled thing going on with the youngsters in the city, in the, in the court. So that's kind of one world is the stately element of that world. And then you've got another part of the city, which is the working people, people who have got jobs and work with their hands, who work hard for the living, really good, honest people.
BEN: 00:03:57 And they are putting on a play for the wedding of the Duke and Hippolyta. And they decide to rehearse their play in the forest at night. So somewhere away from the city where no one can steal their ideas. So that leads on then to the third world, which is the world of the forest, which is inhabited by magical beings. So we've got fairies, goblins, spirits, sprites, and that's their world. That's where they live. They come out at night and we meet one of the goblins called Puck who likes to play tricks on human beings. When you go to have a drink, you know, you spill your drink. Well, it Puck says, that's him. It gets between you lip and a cup. And so there's that world going on there. There's the king and the queen of the Faires. So Oberon is the king and he's Puck's boss.
BEN: 00:04:54 And they pretty much do everything together. And Oberon gives Puck lots of tasks to do. And Titania has got her followers. She's got four Fairies Peasblossom, Cob, Moth and Mustardseed. But the fairy queen and the fairy king are having a massive row because the fairy queen Titania, she's looking after a child, Oberon wants to get in on it. So he wants to raise the child. As, as his heir, he wants him to become the next king of the fairies. Titania doesn't want to give over the child. So there's this massive row between the two of them and that's thrown nature into chaos. So the seasons are all mixed up and you've frost on the roses and ice on flower petals and things come together in this forest. You've got the row with the fairy queen and the fairy king, you've got Puck who likes to play tricks. You've got the actors who were in there rehearsing their play, and you've got Hermia and Lysanda who were crossing through the forest and staying over. And you've got Demetrius who's running after Hermia and you've got Helena running after Demetrius. So all of these characters, all converge in the magical forest and Oberon sees what's going on. He makes himself invisible and he sees what's what's happening with Hermia Lysander, Demetrius and Helena. And he says, Hmm, this needs sorting out.
ANDY: 00:06:14 So that's when you get all the confusion and mistaken identities caused by the love potion,
BEN: 00:06:20 You put into the eye of a human while they're asleep, and then whoever or whatever they see when they wake. The first thing, they fall in love with. But Puck puts it in the wrong person's eye!
ANDY: 00:06:31 So you've got all the bits with Lysander and Demetrius then, and that confusion. And there's also the surreal imagery of Bottom with the donkey's head that he's being magicked into. And the tricks that the potion gets played on with Titania, and you get all the comedy there and it being a comedy, it must have a happy ending. So how does the play end?
BEN: 00:06:52 There Are three weddings, those three weddings, and then our fairies appear Oberon, Titania, Puck Peasblossom, Cob, Moth and Mustardseed. They all arrive to bless the house and bless the three wedded couples. And then we have Puck at the end of the play who speaks directly to the audience. If we shadows have offended think but this and all is mended, that you have all, but slumbered here while these visions did appear. And this week an idle theme, no more yielding, but a dream Gentles do not apprehend. If you pardon, we will mend. So give us your hands. If we be friends and Robin shall restore amends
ANDY: 00:07:33 What do you think the themes are in that? Because you were saying about Puck's, all will be mended and the play performers that you mentioned, the play within a play, which we can talk more about as well. They have jobs where they mend things. Don't they? That's their work. I think a few people have looked at this, but what other themes do you think are, are the powerful, like main themes in the play?
BEN: 00:07:54 Love is probably the strongest theme, how we fall in and out of love and lust and how random it can seem sometimes about who you fancy and who you don't and how things can change so quickly, and also responsibility. You you've got the Duke who's responsible for the city, but you've also got Titania and Oberon responsible for the fairy kingdom, but, and, and responsible for the chaos in nature from their argument, uh, which all derives from a discussion, a debate, an argument about responsibility for a child. And who's going to raise that child.
ANDY: 00:08:31 And you were saying where you were chatting earlier about when you've done workshops on the play. That's one of the ways in and depending on which audience you've used that as a workshop in that argument between Titania and Oberon as a kind-of central point of workshops and debates.
BEN: 00:08:47 It's a really great entry into the play, particularly when you work in with children and young people on that custody battle, because that is all about the child and the child's welfare, who should be bringing up that child, how mother has died and has asked before she actually asked to Titania to bring up the child and Titania has promised. And she, Titania's very loyal. And she, she holds onto that promise and she doesn't want Oberon to bring up the child as his own, to be heir, to Oberon's part of the magical kingdom of the fairy world. It's very much about no, 'I've made a promise to my friend and you are not doing this.' And Oberon is having that sense of entitlement of, well, what I want I get and the length that he goes to, but it's elaborate plan to distract her by making her fall in love with a half human half donkey,
ANDY: 00:09:43 The men, they they're the ones in charge of the decisions. That's them being the dominant ones as it was with the Duke as well.
BEN: 00:09:49 Yeah. And if that's what comes to another one of the themes, you mentioned, it is the power there's, there's lots of power dynamics going on in this story who holds the power who's in control, who follows, who leads. And there is a real strong sense of the patriarchy in this play. I really want to create a response to it one day - that dominant control of Theseus and Oberon, and quite often in productions of the plays, the same actor will play those two parts. Similarly with Hippolyta and Titania quite often the same actor. So the fairy kingdom is a bit like the subconscious, almost, of the court that the still those hierarchies and control and power gain in the supernatural world, just as there is in the mortal world,
ANDY: 00:10:34 A kind-of mirror image of it, but a more chaotic world where these rules are broken temporarily, but then are kind of restored. Well, that hierarchy is all through there, I suppose, isn't it, it's always, the male ones are the most active and the most dominant ones.
BEN: 00:10:48 Exactly. And then once you start casting and you, you know, you can make decisions about who you want to play these parts and whether you're going to subvert the patriarchy somehow. And then that's something that you should really do with Shakespeare is play with it. So I think sometimes we get a little bit stuck sometimes in thinking that the written word, the printed word is authority, and that somehow we can't subvert it, we have to kind of stick with what's always gone before. And it's just not like that. I mean, storytelling's not like that, human beings are not like that. We've got all sorts of productions, 'Not Too Tame' are doing production at Shakespeare, or really focusing on working class heroes, working class culture, placing the focus on the, the working people in the play as, as heroes. And you've got an online production or digital app version by 'Inside Theatre', where you can make decisions as a director about design casting, lighting, costumes, sound effects, and you can create a scene on the app, make some decisions there.
BEN: 00:11:54 There's all sorts of things can do with this 1623, we have just done a project called Titania's flowers, where we've been touring primary schools with a drag artist playing queen Titania, who visits the children to, to explain to them what situation she's in. She's she needs their advice, cuz she she's heard that human children are helpful and creative and she can't get to sleep because she's so worried about this child and about nature being all thrown into chaos and she talks to the children, she's all 'I, I, what can I do to get over and to understand that I'm gonna bring up the child and he's in cuz once he understands and accepts that we'll stop arguing and nature will be restored.' Then they come up with suggestions and then they play some games about growing from seeds in the natural world. And then they go into the school grounds and they plant wildflower seeds together to attract the butterflies and the bees. And then Titania's going to visit them again to see how they're getting on with the growing of the flowers and see, uh, butterflies, how many bees have visited artwork that the children have have made of the flowers and the butterflies and, and then she'll update them on what's happened back in, in her world. She'll well, she'll tell, we'll never guess what he did. He made me fallen in love with the Donkey'. I could tell the story from her point of view
ANDY: 00:13:11 To incorporate the nature into that as an interactive element, as a thread, to tell the story through as
BEN: 00:13:18 Well. It's really important. I think to, to do the creativity and arts and what we're doing is, is about supporting the environment and the world and butterflies and bees that, that we need to ensure the safety of the planet. So particularly young people are really passionate about. We came up with that with young people and teachers, you know, we can explore that story, but also how can we actually make a real difference as well and how there is climate change in that story of the seasons, all being mixed up. And where does that come from? That comes from the neglect of nature because Titania is so distracted by their own arguments. That nature goes wild in a destructive way
ANDY: 00:13:57 That's something that young people have picked up on as well. So that wrangling of the politics of it, which then ignores the chaos that's causing in the environment, has it been quite a good, a strong response from the young people you've worked with towards the play? You've looked at it through different lenses and avenues. You've had a strong response from the young people?
BEN: 00:14:14 Yeah. One of the, the children in one of the schools. Said that was the best day that I've ever had. He met a magical character. He got to be a magical character in the, in the, in the games that we played and he got to plant some seeds and it was the best day.
ANDY: 00:14:30 Do you have a favorite character in the play?
BEN: 00:14:32 I do like to Titania cuz of her fierce loyalty and she doesn't take any rubbish. She's she's very sassy and clear sighted. And I like her for that. I like Bottom. He's fun. Yeah. He seems quite confident like, 'oh, I could play this part. I could play that part. I'm great.' But then there is this like underlying insecurity trying to prove that he can do things and proving to him or others, you know that this is that, that real sense of imposter syndrome that you might have that I really like. Yeah. And just him and Titania together, you know, the least likely couple. And then there they are, even though it is so screwed up. I mean that love spell. Yeah. It's a drug, isn't it? She's drugged into fancy a donkey. So those kind of levels to the story as well that it is farcical and funny on one level when you actually reflect on it, it's disturbing
ANDY: 00:15:21 Because Puck is probably one of the most famous characters in the play, like you say it shares the name, Robin Goodfellow. So borrows from - it's a character that was around in folklore, in Shakespeare time, wasn't it? And pucks and fairies and hobgoblins and things. So it kind of borrows from that, but it's had a really enduring legacy as well that you can picture that character quite easily. And it's in things like 'Dead Poets Society', the film where they perform, that play, it's a scene with Puck that they, they choose to put on there. So I think that might be maybe one of my favorite characters because I think there's traces of that afterwards. I dunno. Like, if you look at maybe Peter Pan, I, I can see like that kind of DNA in the Peter Pan figure or certain Robin Hood adaptations. I think that comes in as well. It's quite an enduring kind of image. I dunno if you agree with that or, or what do you think is like the legacy of A Midsummer Night's Dream? How is that impacted on literature? That's followed
BEN: 00:16:15 Well in pop culture, it's love island, isn't it? You know, it's that kind of people falling in and out of love and arguing and where is the responsibility and all that kind of thing in terms of literature, it's magic realism, isn't it there that whole kind of movement that we call magic realism now is, is there in the Midsummer Night's Dream, there quite a few Shakespeare planes, actually. The end of the 'Winter's Tale' where it seems that a, a statue comes to life, but you know, but you can believe that. And then there's also story of the person who the statue represents, been living in hiding and everyone thought she was dead and it's actually her that it's pretending to be a statue. So you can read it in a magical way or a realist way.
ANDY: 00:16:56 Shakespeare has obviously used supernatural in other things as well. And we were talking before how we rarely, as school children, we rarely study the comedies. It's always the tragedies, but thinking of kind-of Macbeth supernatural world is a key feature in Macbeth. I wouldn't say I'm a Shakespeare expert, but I'd say other than maybe the witches in Macbeth are a really strong image that an instantly recognizable image, I'd see like the, the witches in Macbeth and go, yeah, that's Macbeth. There's probably not many other Shakespeare players do that - apart from, I think, A Midsummer Night's Dream, where if yoo see Titania and Bottom, that's instantly recognizable. It's been replicated by artists throughout the world. Like William Blake's done interpretations of that. And, and lots of other kind-of Victorian artists have depicted to Titania and Bottom because it's just so instantly recognizable as representation of that play.
BEN: 00:17:46 Exactly. Yeah. And so it's interesting also that there's visual iconic moments from Shakespeare that you're talking about there. So it's the donkey and the fairy, and that means Midsummer Night's Dream. You've got a young person on a balcony and a young person below looking up that's Romeo and Juliet. You've got somebody holding a skull that's Hamlet.
ANDY: 00:18:04 Yeah. That's true. Yeah. Yeah
BEN: 00:18:04 Know, you've got three people around a cauldron that now you're saying there are those kind of iconic images that you associate with them. And sometimes it's really exciting as a director and, uh, an artist working with other artists to turn those things on their head sometimes, really? Oh, you think that's it. But actually it's about more than that. But with the witches, even calling them witches is problematic because that's not how they self-defined, they self-define as weird sisters. And the word witch is only used once in the entire script of Macbeth in the, in the dialogue. And that's when one of the weird sisters has been out begging and sailors, why tells it to get lost and says Aroint thee, which is a very strong way of saying go away. Aroint thee witch, the rumper fed rufian cried. That's the only time the word witch is used the entire play.
BEN: 00:18:54 They say the weird sisters hand in hand posters of the sea and land and Macbeth calls them the sisters when he writes to later Macbeth. And when he wants to see him, I will tomorrow. And be times I will to the weird sisters. So how they perceive themselves and working with artists or students or learners and teachers until what does weird mean to you? What does sister mean to you? And it doesn't have to be three old women with pointy hats around a cold actually, who are the weird, what's weird about them. What's sisterly about, you know, are they blood relatives? Are they chosen family? Do they get on? Do they despise each other? Is there a hierarchy? First weird sister always asks questions. Second one always answers. Third will always adds a little bit of extra information. So this, that clue as to what their relationships like, and they are a unit, they are a family and they are an alternative to the world of male bravado and bloodshed.
ANDY: 00:19:43 We look at the, the supernatural thing there. But as a theatre director, you are pulling apart those characters and silly them going well, no like, like I've described them as witches and they don't call themselves that. And actually you're able to bring them more to life and investigate the relationships between them rather than seeing it as an iconic image. Or these are the witches it's oh, well, no, these are, let's look at who they are actually. And who did they say they are? And what's the relationships between them. And I guess you've done that with Midsummer Night's Dream as well, where, you know, we get these supernatural images in, but, well costume design is a brilliant creative thing, but that's one element of it, but it's bringing it to life and inhabit in the person of the character as well.
BEN: 00:20:21 That's right, Andy. Yeah. Your characters have got to be recognizable in some way for you to engage with them. If they were completely unhuman, you know, where is the opening for you to connect or care about that character? So we've got the king and queen of the fairies, but yet they're so human in the way that they are angry, jealous, passionate, changeable, very similar to the, the, the human character. Yeah. They've got powers, flying for example, but you can make a decision as a director, whether you want them to fly there's, there's scope there for, for doing them. However you want to really. And there are quite earthy explanations of some things as well. Sometimes, you know, like with the weird sisters in Macbeth, we're taught aren't we, they are witches and they predict the future. They can see into the future. They tell that Macbeth is going to be king.
BEN: 00:21:08 They, well, they tell that Macbeth is going to be promoted. How do they know that it's gonna be promoted? Is that well, actually between their first and their second scene, there is another scene where the king announces that Macbeth's going to going to be promoted. What if they're still around? What if they overhear it to, to lead him on and the stuff that's in that cauldron. If you look at the ingredients, there's quite a lot of hallucinogenics in there. Did it get him to drink that hell broth? he's gonna be having all sorts of visions. There is the magic. There is the realism. There is that heavy mixture of both, and it can be both things at the same time. And that's, that's one of the great things about art is that you don't have to have an answer. Are they Faires? Are the fairies us?
BEN: 00:21:46 Are they projections of us? Are they the irrational bits of us that we project and draw design and play or write? It's the psychology of it. There's the magic of it. There's the realism of it. And it's just great. Sometimes just to embrace the messiness of it. It doesn't have to be uniform. It doesn't have to be like in this world. Magic is real. There's always the potential for the magic to be real. There's always a potential for the real to be magic as, wow. Yeah. There's a really famous production of mid summon eye stream in theater history that Peter Brook did in the, in the 1960s at the Royal Shakespeare company where he just stripped away everything in the play, just, it was just performing a big white box and all the magic was circus tricks, plate spinning acrobatics instead of LA, instead of flying, it was very human. And there's always gonna be those little nuggets of magic in there that you can play with and unpack and make sense of. There's no point in doing any of it, unless you're gonna relate it to here of there, because that's where we are.
ANDY: 00:22:43 It's gotta link to, to things that are going on, but also that kind of universal human we can connect with today and characters that stand the test of time because they're invested in as characters and people, rather than something that was written down on paper 400 years ago, it's got to be brought to life more.
BEN: 00:22:59 That's something that 1623 is really passionate about. It's about responding to Shakespeare. So Shakespeare being like a starting point for your own creativity and not being the end point. It's like, oh, once you've got Shakespeare, you've made it. It's like, no, no, like let's get our edge around it. Let's respond to it. Let's take it on. And then let's create our own store and knock him off his pedestal a little bit. I mean, he is really, really good, but so are we, as in all human beings. So let's kind of get rid of that myth genius and let's all be geniuses and let's all create. And if something doesn't kind of sit or land very well with the Shakespeare play, it's not because you're stupid. It's not cause you don't understand it. It's probably because he might have made a mistake or he might have told the story in a way that you wouldn't have told it and you might have done it in a different way. And actually you can, you can do it in a different way. You can rewrite things. You can respond to things you can own it. In fact, you do own it. Shakespeare is everybody's birthright belongs to everyone. Do what you want with it.
ANDY: 00:23:57 You've talked about the workshops and projects have been doing in productions. How can people follow your company? Then what's the best way to keep in touch with what 1623 are doing?
BEN: 00:24:08 We're on the socials. We're on Twitter at 1623 theater. That's like the numbers 1 6, 2, 3 theater. And there's some links there to different aspects of the company. So we've got our performances, we've got our learning activities. We've got our community and participation work and our training and we're on Facebook, 16, 23 theater and Instagram. And we've got a YouTube channel as well, where our most recent productions on there of a new translation into contemporary English by playwright called Bolt. Who's translated much to do about nothing, which funny enough is one of the few Shakespeare plays that has no magic in it.
ANDY: 00:24:50 Yeah. We like the magic here at DreamSwarm. So yeah, for everyone, if you are gonna go and see a production of Midsummer Night's Dream, then I really hope you enjoy it. And of course you can follow Ben and the team then @1623Theatre on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Sounds like some really brilliant work happening and really good introductions to Shakespeare. Well, Ben, thanks very much for coming on. It's been really good insight into the play Midsummer Night's Dream. You've given us loads of depth on that, but also it's a great insight into how a working practitioner of Shakespeare has really tackled that and other plays and brought it to life for various audiences. And as you say, 1623 Theatre, you've taken groups of people who might seem marginalized from Shakespeare and from other plays. And you've given them their opportunity to show their work with you and, and their interpretation. So really worth checking you guys out @1623Theatre. Sounds brilliant. Yeah. So Ben, thanks very much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it.
BEN: 00:25:50 Thank you. Thanks you for having me and um, enjoy Midsummer.
OUTRO 00:26:00 Thank you for joining us for this episode of the DreamSwarm podcast. I've been your host, Andy Mark Simpson. We hope you'll join us for the next one. Remember you can subscribe to stay in touch with future episodes and follow us at the website, www.dreamswarm.org, or follow on Twitter and Instagram @DreamSwarm And we look forward to joining you for more supernatural film, stories and art. In the meantime, be creative, be curious, be kind, we'll see you soon.