Charlie Chaplin said that:
'Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.'
The close-up minutiae of things have been pointing me towards tragedy from time to time this year, but a night of comedy and - it turned out - much more reminded me of the long-shot panorama of perspective.
I hadn't been to the theatre for ages. The practicalities of life had intervened, with the demands of work, travel, health, family illness having a big impact on socializing and nights out. I simply couldn't miss the chance of seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company in Belfast, though, with the special production of A Midsummer Night's Dream to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death finishing its UK tour there last weekend.
This was a special production, too, in that the parts of Shakespeare's 'Mechanicals', the working men of Athens who stage the play-within-a-play at Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding feast, were played by actors from local amateur dramatic groups in each region visited by the tour, and the parts of fairy attendants being played by local schoolchildren. In Belfast, it was the turn of the Belvoir Players at St Malachy's College, and the juxtaposition of established professionals and talented amateurs proved irresistible.
For once, the weeks leading up to Midsummer have been Summer-like in Northern Ireland, with record temperatures and sunshine for almost a fortnight. On our way to the theatre on a perfect Summer night, we saw people enjoying the sunshine outside city centre pubs and restaurants, and the brand-new tourist attraction, a 'cycling pub', allowing groups to take a sight-seeing, cycling tour while having a few drinks at the same time. This sunlit city of bright colours and laughter didn't have much in common with the Belfast where I grew up; the night didn't have much in common either with the overriding sombreness of the past sixth months.
From the first seconds, with Puck and one of the other lead fairies playing Chopsticks, to the famous, self-effacing Epilogue, the play was magical. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Royal Shakespeare Company was good: this was somewhere better than good, though - this was Shakespeare as you dream of seeing it played. The confusion of twisting storyline surrounding the four young lovers built to farce, mixing physical comedy, the sense of the ridiculous and beautifully timed delivery of lines. The Belvoir players as the Mechanicals were inspired - so they were - mingling Shakespeare's lines with the local, Belfast accent and giving the play a whole new resonance. Fairy attendants in school blazers mixed everyday realism with the play's magic, and the pupils from St Malachy's were absolutely assured on stage. It was wonderful to think that the local actors from across the company's tour route had been able to join virtually in rehearsals for some months through on-screen networking, but there was nothing virtual about their presence on stage. Whether it was the Belvoir players or the St Malachy's College boys, these were authentic, immediate performances, reminding us that Shakespeare's lines belong just as much in Belfast as they do in Stratford. Fairies with Belfast accents blessed the three marriages which had taken place by the end of the play - and it felt as if their words reminded us in the audience that our imagination counts too, over here: we may be hundreds of miles away from the home of Shakespeare's work, but our imagination and our sense of magic are just as true.
I've never been much good at believing in magic. I'm always suspicious - nervous of being tricked, trying to second-guess what the magician has up his sleeve. But the magic of this play convinced me totally. The mystified and reunited lovers - the gradual seduction of Hippolyta by Theseus - Bottom's dream - the verbal and physical acrobatics by the incredible young actor playing Puck - it was all real, just as I believed, for those few hours, that those school-blazered 13 year-olds had magic powers. And that's the thing with Shakespeare. Theseus says it at the beginning of Act 5, even though he's half-meaning to be scornful:
'Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.'
Equating 'the lunatic, the lover and the poet' in the over-exercise of the imagination, Theseus allows Shakespeare to remind us how we can be transported in the theatre (and through books, and how the imagination can be an escape from the everyday into the perspective beyond its minutiae):
'... as the imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.'
The play for the nation, they called it: this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream brought a local habitation, local names and cadences to the absolute magic of the theatre. On a perfect, almost midsummer night in Belfast, Belfast accents merged with the RSC's received pronunciation, uproarious laughter mingled with tears, love stories resolved mingled with uplifted spirits through the love of the imagination, writing and the theatre. The world of the imagination is the escape from the close-up views of tragedy: 'Think but this and all is mended.'
'Is there no play,' Theseus asks after the wedding feast, 'To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?' Theseus simply wanted to pass the time before his wedding night, but for the rest of us, this uplifting night's theatre was a reminder about humour, and love, and colour, and talent. And maybe just a little bit of magic.
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