Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
When the average person thinks of Shakespeare plays, a small number will immediately spring to mind. Among them, A Midsummer Night’s Dream likely tops the comedy side of the list. One of Shakespeare’s most accessible, lighthearted and side-splittingly comical plays, it is an often-produced favourite of theatre companies and high schools alike. It is such a staple that audiences may wonder if it is possible to stage this play in a way that hasn’t been done before. Recently, a Toronto arts high school accommodated its sizable drama class by double-casting the main roles (which changed halfway through the performance), and divided Puck’s role between two actors – both female – who performed it as two characters, instead of one.
As it happens, A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens the new Shakespeare BASH’d season – so the play will almost certainly receive an interpretation that is unusual and unexpected. After all, the indie company is recognized for innovative approaches to Shakespeare’s plays that reflect contemporary society while remaining faithful to the original text . . . and which audiences of all ages enjoy over beverages. The company is revisiting this play after first producing it in 2011. Catherine Rainville and co-Artistic Director James Wallis co-direct the production, and audiences should anticipate one significant innovation in the casting: co-Artistic Director Julia Nish-Lapidus performs the ebullient joiner and thespian Nick Bottom, a role that leverages her two great loves: the text of the play and the art of clowning. Moreover, all the fairies will be performed by women: Michelle Mohammed is the mischievous sprite Puck; Kate McArthur is the jealous Fairy King Oberon; and Zara Jestadt is the Fairy Queen Titania.
Jestadt makes her debut with Shakespeare BASH’d, fresh from a 2-year stint at the Stratford Festival. She is a graduate of the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, as well as George Brown Theatre School, and is gaining a reputation for television and stage performance, especially in classical roles. While in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she chatted with SesayArts about playing the “fierce force of a woman” that is Titania, the enduring appeal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and its . . .well, puckish ability to evade easy definition.
SesayArts: When presenting a classic as popular as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there must be lots to consider in order to make a production fresh and distinct. What will set this version apart, in your view?
ZJ: It definitely is a difficult thing to do – to make something that is so well-known fresh and distinct. But what is particularly amazing about working with Shakespeare BASH’d is that they don’t put that outside pressure on the production to be different and unique. They look to the text, the story, and their actors to motivate the direction. The goal isn’t specifically to set ourselves apart from anyone else, but instead to look to the text to inform decisions about relationships, motivations, and the world we are in.
The company is curious about why Shakespeare’s stories have remained so popular for so long, and what’s been so central is not what the story is, but how it is being told. Shakespeare wrote beautiful things. Shakespeare BASH’d wants to highlight this by being as faithful to the text and providing the conditions to allow that language to soar.
It isn’t high-concept for a reason, allowing the focus to be on deepening relationships and intentions. I think audiences will really delight in the care and depth the company has invested in this production.
SesayArts: How is this story still important for us to hear today?
ZJ: What I love so much about this story is that it embraces all the lightness, laughter, darkness, chaos, hilarity, confusion, and absurdity that I think defines humanity. I can’t find a clear, concise message in it, which I absolutely adore, as much like life, it is a lot messier than that. In that vein, I think it really is a story that a lot of people can embrace, as its themes are so wide-ranging.
I think it also captures our attention in so many different ways because of that real inability to define what this play is. It is, one moment, a play about true lovers fighting for their right to be together, then a fantastical show-off, then about a troupe of community theatre actors. It is constantly reminding us that we are watching a play, that we are not in reality. The play’s title itself suggests nothing we are watching is based in reality. All of this keeps our attention in a myriad of ways — it is constantly changing tone and what it is even saying about itself.
And really it is a play that embraces itself as a means to entertain, which might possibly be why it has remained so popular over so many years, and I think a central reason why it is important to hear today.
SesayArts: Let’s talk about your character, Titania. What is your attraction to the role, and what is your approach to playing her, especially since Oberon will be played by a woman?
ZJ: Titania is a fierce force of a woman. What really drew me to her was honestly the kind of power and status she has. It is always a lot of fun playing someone who doesn’t have to play by normal rules, who instead gets to make the rules and have others validate and follow those decisions. There is so much freedom in that. She also exists in a fantastical fairy world, a world we don’t necessarily have a specific context for, which again really allows for a lot of freedom.
And then it is also fun to explore what this kind of character is like when she doesn’t get what she wants.
I don’t know if I have a different approach to playing her given that Oberon is played by a woman, or if I have made any specific decisions based on Oberon’s gender. In our version, Oberon is still the fairy king; Titania is still the fairy queen.
What became very clear from the beginning is that, while these fairy characters are other-worldly, their motivations are very much based in humanity. They are jealous, want power, feel spite and vengeance, feel pain by others’ actions against them, and manipulate each other to get what they want. They are so closely tied to the mortal world, and I think Titania’s essence is particularly down to earth. She is so sensual, and is, at her heart, a caregiver.
SesayArts: Talk to us about that whole being-made-to-fall-in-love-with-a-donkey bit… What might it be saying about the themes of love and dreaming, in your opinion?
ZJ: While it may be saying something about love and dreaming, I think it may have a lot more to do with the status quo – the conditions of power, position, and status. Oberon makes Titania fall in love with a donkey to embarrass her. Which would be very embarrassing for this queen, to fall in love with something so “beneath” her.
Only in this altered state can she see the true essence and beautiful qualities of this being, which may always exist, but she isn’t able to see as a high-ranked queen. Which again possibly says more about class and status than anything else.
SesayArts: what has surprised you or challenged you in your work at Shakespeare BASH’d?
ZJ: What has been particularly surprising, and what is pretty much consistently surprising working on Shakespeare, are the details of what’s in this play. I thought I knew it — I’ve seen it and read it quite a few times, it exists so widely in popular culture, but every time we run it, every time I speak it, something new is illuminated or highlighted. Which is so exciting!
But I am finding that itself a challenge — how do I highlight all these vital things when everything is vital?
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What: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare | Directed by Catherine Rainville and James Wallis | Presented by Shakespeare BASH’d
Performed by Hilary Adams, Zara Jestadt, Nyiri Karakas, Eliza Martin, Kate McArthur, Megan Miles, Michelle Mohammed, Justin Mullen, Nick Nahwegahbow, Julia Nish-Lapidus, Mussié Solomon, John Wamsley
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: November 12 – 17, 2019
Where: Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: shakespearebashd.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019