Memories of the ‘Dream’

17th April 2013

I was 16 years old in the summer of 1971. At school I had just taken my O’ levels, including English Language and English Literature, for both of which I had been taught by the poet Brian Jones. He told my class that in London there was a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which, if we went to see it, we would remember for the rest of our life. I followed his recommendation, even though it meant I had to come back to Canterbury on an early-hours’ milk train. And, as it has for so, so many others, that Dream has stayed with me across the past forty-two years. I’m grateful for so much to Brian Jones, who died in 2009 (see here for my earlier tribute) – and I am eternally grateful to the director of that production, Peter Brook, who thankfully and thrillingly is still with us.

Peter Brook has a new book published next week, The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare, and the Guardian has carried an extensive (wonderful) extract about the making of the Dream. I think it’s fair to say that the production is regarded as the single most influential post-war staging of a Shakespeare play, and while I am not going to hymn its many virtues once again, I do want to bear witness that it was my cultural epiphany.

I had been in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lysander, since you ask), and I think by 1971 I must have seen the 1935 Max Reinhardt film version (with James Cagney, no less, as Bottom, and Dick Powell in ‘my’ role). I had been to other Shakespeare plays, mostly at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. But the Brook Dream was like nothing I had seen before (or, pretty much, since). It was funny and fantastical, revelatory and endlessly inventive and at the same time gloriously sexy and disturbingly dangerous.

The ‘marriage’ of Bottom (David Waller) and Titania (Sara Kestelman), played as I recall it, Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’, was thrilling and transgressive. I can still feel the intense joy of that moment, just as I can bring to mind the sound of the twirling tubes and the heart-in-the-mouth moment when Frances de la Tour’s Helena leapt horizontally across a doorway. (Someone, of course, is bound to challenge my memory, of which more below.)

I still have the programme (above), from which I see that the cast also included Alan Howard (Theseus/Oberon), Philip Locke (Egeus/Quince), Patrick Stewart (Snout) and Ben Kingsley (Demetrius). I am reminded too that the design (a white box, with primary-coloured timeless robes) was by the brilliant Sally Jacobs, who worked regularly with Brook. The the programme shows that what I saw was a transfer of the original Stratford-upon-Avon production which had opened the year before in August. Before reaching the Aldwych it had already been to New York and on a short American tour. It was also to be revived in 1973.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1970, © Royal Shakespeare Company

Quite simply, that evening made me fall in love with Shakespeare – and with the theatre. Which is an affair that has lasted pretty well, given that I am hugely looking forward to tonight’s date with my inamorata, As You Like It in Straford-upon-Avon. Few cultural experiences have run it close in terms of intensity, although The Searchers at the NFT, the Boss at Wembley and parts of the Ring from the Met have come close.

Many in today’s art world, at least those of a certain age, will tell you a similar story to mine. Yet to do so, you had to have been there (and I suspect there are some who suggest they were but don’t actually have the programme to prove it). Today, that Dream would have been beamed live to 600 cinemas around the world, perhaps done as a simulcast with Sky Arts, and DVDs and Blu-rays would have been in the shops within weeks.

Yet in the 1970, 1971 and 1973, television let this production pretty much pass it by. There is no video recording or film of the complete production, and the only traces in the archives are some four minutes of footage filmed  for a BBC arts programme with a single camera and a not-great mic. These were shot on 16mm film for a 50-minute programme called Review: Peter Brook transmitted on 1 January 1971 and for which Brook was interviewed by James Mossman. This documentary, like so, so much else in the BBC Archive is inaccessible at present, but the clips were drawn together in a sequence of an unidentified educational film about Shakespeare which is currently available on YouTube (they start at 00:42)

That’s it, I believe – the complete moving image record of one of the most significant of all stage productions. (If only someone could contradict me in response to this post.) There’s no music (I’m sure the rights were too expensive), there is little sense of the ensemble, and no notion of the magic. But of course it is far better than nothing, and we are grateful to the production team (Tony Staveacre, David Heycock, Peter Adam) that these fragments have been passed down to us.

Or are we? Might it not have been better for the production simply to pass without any film or video? Might that have been more true to its spirit – and even to the spirit of theatre as a form? Is what we’re doing with television and Digital Theatre and NT Live and V&A archival recordings somehow not only misconceived but also wrong?

After all, supposing we had a good quality record of Brook’s production, even perhaps one shot under his control, might the magic of our memories be tarnished by it? Might it not quite live up to what we recall – and as a consequence might our love for it diminish? Could it be that this Brook’s Dream has the place it has in our hearts and minds precisely because these four scrappy minutes are all we have by way of an ‘objective’ memory? Whisper it softly, but could it be that by transferring theatre to the screen we risk killing (with kindness) the very thing we love so much?


  1. Helene says:

    John, it’s always nice to remember those rare moments from our youth that have gone on to impact our lives so heavily … moments that often don’t seem so dynamic at the time.

    My one such moment was my first trip to Europe after college, and probably my first theatrical production (a musical) in London, which taught me that there was so much more out there than American-made movies.

  2. Those of us who never saw the production would be mightily glad to see a video recording, while those who were lucky to see it for real could always keep their memories unsullied by not choosing to view it.

    There have long been rumours of a fuller film recording of the Brook Dream having been made. I have a vague memory of Japanese TV being involved. I have also been told of where a copy might survive, which I can’t share here, but all may be a mere dream itself, conjured up more by hopes than realities.

  3. Helene says:

    Continuing with the Shakespeare theme, you and your readers might be interested in viewing Greg Doran’s interview with Charlie Rose that was shown on PBS April 16. In it, Doran discusses the RSC’s production of “Julius Caesar” in Brooklyn this month.

    The link is here:

  4. The Greg Doran interview was shown on Bloomberg in the UK this evening.

  5. John Wyver says:

    Thanks to you both – I shall definitely chase down the Greg Doran interview.

  6. Anna says:

    When I went to college in 1979, a couple of my drama lecturers seemed to mention Brook’s Dream in every class, holding it up as some sort epitome of theatre that could never be bettered. As keen 18 year olds, seeking the strange and wonderful in that most creative of cities, Liverpool, it seemed as redundant as the fogies who claimed that the thriving music scene would never produce anything as good as the Beatles. That past was a decade – half of our lives – away.

    Of course I’d love to see a film of it, but there would be no context. I remember reading Look Back in Anger and asking my tutor what all the fuss had been about. I fear that if we saw The Dream now, it would look familiar, possibly stale from having influenced so much that came later, and possibly even dated.

    Tim Supple’s fairly recent multi-lingual production, which became known as “The Indian Dream”, was compared by many (and many who were younger than me) to Brook’s in terms of its innovation, and I’m sure it will live on in the memories especially of some of the younger Asian children who saw it, not least because the bilingial amongst them were clearly getting the jokes from the dialogue a second or two before we white, middle-aged, Shakespeare stalwarts who were relying on the action and memory of the script. But we’re now used to Shakespeare, as with all theatre, being pushed and pulled in every direction, from site-specific to all-female to the gymnastics of Vesturport to exotic productions from unfamiliar foreign theatre cultures (fertile Brook territory, of course). From what I’ve read (the Guardian article is on hold till the weekend), Brook’s Dream was so powerful because it broke the hallowed “proper” Shakespeare mould that had hitherto been left untouched by experimental theatre. So, was it really that good (I suspect it was) or was it its groundbreaking nature that makes it live on so vividly in memories and even imaginations?

    Your whisper that transferring theatre to the screen may kill it is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It won’t kill it, of course it won’t, but it will freeze it, possibly freezing almost all the life out of it, much as memories of, say, a holiday, decline until the most memorable parts are those for which we have photos. “Remember that restaurant?” we say, looking at a fading snapshot, and forgetting the restaurant we preferred and the interesting people we met there because we don’t have photos to fix it in our minds.

    At the risk of turning this into a blog of my own, if I may use Maria Aberg’s King John as an example (I’m currently taking a part time degree and it will probably form the basis of my dissertation, in case you conclude that I’ve thought about it too much), my friend and I saw this numerous times, sometimes sitting together, sometimes in different parts or sides of the house, and sometimes on our own. Yet, even having sat together, one of us might say that a certain scene was played particularly flirtatiously, or gently, or brutally that night, and the other would frown and wonder if we’d really been at the same performance. Your memory of Brook’s Dream, however imperfect or even wrong, is how it was for you and is therefore valid.

    Having watched King John evolve, there were numerous changes over its run. To pick one line, three words, “My Mother dead” (IV:II:181). My initial notes were that John needed more words. Had it been a living playwright, more words might have been added during rehearsal. I even wrote that he needed a “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” just to have something to say to absorb the news that he’s been trying to absorb during the past couple of minutes of reportage of everything else in his campaign going wrong. Alex Waldmann just said the line slowly, then Pippa Nixon rushed on and the play picked up speed again. Until one Saturday night. He slowly walked to the side of the stage, made eye contact with a woman who was of an age to have been his mother, knelt down and stretched forward almost prostrate before delivering the line to her. It soon changed so that he just knelt, and the addressee, always on the side of the stage (either side), could be either gender and any age. Then one night it changed again, such that he stood and looked at the whole audience, taking in the galleries, with a slow turn of his head before focussing on a single person and delivering it, still standing, directly to them. So, which is the one performance to “fix”? Each one was different, sometimes as a reaction to an event the night before, sometimes for reasons I was unaware of. I wouldn’t say that the last night was the best – though it had a different energy, especially as so many in the audience had seen it before. Nor would I say that the night the V&A filmed was the best, although it created more energy by being played “out” more than usual, losing some intimacy. If I was there for the night when it was filmed for the RSC archives I wasn’t aware of it, but now that means there are 2 filmed versions to consider.

    I remember tweeting you before you saw it, telling you to bring a camera with you, and if you had made a film, of course I’d have bought the DVD. I’m not sure how often I’d watch it, though. As it is, there are 2 filmed versions that I’ll probably have to watch, with a certain amount of trepidation (though I’m curious to date the RSC Archive one) because I love remembering it as a multiplicity. Maybe you saw the one and only performance of Brook’s Dream where Frances de la Tour’s Helena leapt horizontally across a doorway, and if you do ever find a film, you’ll doubt your memory. I don’t want my memory to be forced into believing King John happened in a particular way every night. People sometimes ask why I see a production more than once, and the reason is the exact opposite of watching a film twice: it’s to enjoy the variation and the immediate response to a new audience, not to burn it, move by move and inflection by inflection, onto my brain. So to conclude, film is great for people who couldn’t be there in person, but for those who could, it can prove every bit as unreliable a witness as individual memories of sitting in the auditorium, yet given chance, it will come to dominate the memory as an absolute truth.

  7. Paul says:

    From that Guardian article, it suggests that the only copy made of the Japanese broadcast was one that was sent to Brook himself. Does he still have that copy? He states that it turned out well and tried to stop the destruction of the master so it would be strange if he didn’t keep it.

    “A few weeks later, I received a bulky parcel from Japan. It contained a set of large discs. “This,” wrote one of the producers, “is a copy of the recording. We feel that you should have it.”

    I found a player and discovered to my amazement that it looked very good. I sent a cable to Japan, telling them not to destroy the master. At once a telegram returned. “This morning, in the presence of the British Consul, as you requested, the recording and the negative have been burned.””

    Discs? What format would that be?

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