After William Shakespeare

Credits: Adaptation Lindsay Kemp and David Haughton. Music by Carlos Miranda.

Costumes and Direction, Lindsay Kemp. Lighting John Spradbery.

Premiere: Teatro Eliseo, Rome, 3 October 1979



Elves and Fairies, Love and Magic, Amateur Thespians and Sex? … in 1979, when Lindsay Kemp received the first commission of a new production for his company after the international success of ‘Flowers’, he quickly succumbed to his life-long attraction to Shakespeare’s magical comedy… motivated by his love for the above ingredients, but alsoby the appeal of the role of Puck for himself.

Shakespeare’s play, of course, is a passion for every Thespian, especially if they’re English, and Lindsay had seen numerous productions since childhood, on stage and screen, and had staged his own unofficial two-boy version aged 11. Now, as usual, his approach was theatrical, not literary. Reacting to Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, shorn of the over-scholarly habits of the English Shakespearean establishment– unless affectionately parodying them – the first task was to develop a staging faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, themes and atmospheres but almost entirely devoid of his words.This was partly necessary because this would be an Italian production, designed for international touring, and partly because Kemp’s stage language was anyayalways rooted in music, movement and visual inspiration, in sensorial and sensual spontaneity…much more than in rationality or words.

So during the creation of The Dream, the foremost inspirations included the lavish 1935 Warner Bros. film directed by Max Reinhardt, featuring choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, dreamlike magic effects and elaborate costumes, with Mickey Rooney as Puck and James Cagney as Bottom (among other unlikely Hollywood casting). Then there was the influence of the Victorian Fairy Painters, intensivelyresearched for the occasion… Henry Fuseli, Joseph Paton and William Blake and of course the madhouse resident, Richard Dadd: all useful for tableaus, groupings, costumes, choreography even.

On a different level, Kemp’s role as Puck – naturally, very much the central focus of this production – was also a key inspiration to the project: this mischievous, magical elfish character, part child and part Dionysian anarchist, brought with it a range of complex symbolism, from Lorca’s Duende to Mr.Punch, Lear’s Fool, green leprechauns,Hermes and Bacchus. So naturally all the chorus of fairies and gnomes would take on Puck’s trickster nature and bizarre appearance and behaviour.

One last whimsical influence: in 1979, playing a clown in Shakespeare, for Lindsay Kemp, meant fulfilling hisidentification with Will Kemp, the highly popular Elizabethan actor for whom many of Shakespeare’s comic roles were written… and who fell out with the Bard due to his tendency to improvise text unpredictably. Lindsay had always promoted this association, for years declaring himself a descendant of Will Kemp, which later became a “probable” and finally a “possible” descendent. Certainly, between both men’s irreverent comedy and spontaneous improvised onstage jigs and dances, these two Shakespearean clowns had a lot in common.


Creation: The great Italian stage and screen actor Romolo Valli had tried to bring “Flowers” to Italy a few years earlier but, as Artistic director of Rome’s Teatro Eliseo, he was one of the three partner theatres that brought the show to Milan, Rome and Prato in early 1979. On the strength of such an intense success in the early spring, he offered to produce a new production to open the Eliseo’s season in October.

The creative process began with the evolution of a free Kempian adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, developed by Kemp and David Haughton, with the collaboration of the Chilean composer Carlos Miranda. As often happened with Kemp creations, the first idea was for an opening scene that would establish the style: in this case, a pre-prologue soundtrack featuring Elvis Presley singing a rock version of “Tonight’s so right for love / A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, based on the melody of the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”… a clear declaration of mischievous stylistic intentions.

Late spring and summer 1979 featuredbusy company touring schedules, so early rehearsals took place in varied unlikely locations… on afternoon stages prepared for “Flowers” or “Salomé” in the evening, in hotel ballrooms or on hotel roofs, often spending hours and hours on group dances that were suppressed long before the opening. Around July, during a bizarre 2-week residential teaching course in the vast Villa Passalacqua overlooking Lake Como – with over 30 sleep-in students and Dionysian antics in all-night dormitories – the sleepy mornings were devoted to rehearsing The Dream. Later, in the Renaissance model town of Sabbioneta, near Mantua, while preparing and performing Mr.Punch in the main square, the Dream was rehearsed in the exquisite Teatro Olimpico, Europe’s first indoor theatre constructed exclusively for that purpose… just a few years before Shakespeare wrote his play. During the chaotic months of preparation, cast and crew changed frequently, as did the plans for scenes, scenery, costumes and running order. Fortunately, playfulness pervaded the constantly changing Puck-ish creativity.

The last weeks of rehearsal took place in the Teatro Eliseo in Rome, from early September, while “Flowers” had a further 2-week run in the evenings. A week of technical montage and rehearsals led up to a dramatically disastrous dress rehearsal on the 1st of October in front of a small select audience including a probably perplexed Julian Beck and his Living Theatre Company. In comparison, the world premiere on October the 3rd went reasonably smoothly… as Kempian first nights go. And from then on, the show could really begin to develop!


Ingredients: As usual with Kemp productions, the ingredients changed radicallyover time… especially in this volatile and much-travelled creation.

          The Set, which frequently needed to precede or follow either “Flowers” or “Salomé” on tour, like those shows made use of metal scaffolding, but moved closer to Kemp’s favoured traditional wings and borders, preferably in original versions. Here the basic idea was to make them with large-scale rope netting (each square roughly 20cm), with lengths of fabric tied through them to fill the space and create an uneven trellis effect. The necessary amount of fabric, and the tying-time needed to cover 4 sets of wings and borders, was greatly underestimated, and for the first months of touring the company was repeatedly requested to donate old tights, T-shirts, socks, scarves and underpants and then tie them into an increasingly dense and vivid multi-colouredforest collage.

Thanks to John Spradbery’s brilliant lighting, this versatile set became a changeable blue and green forest or else a golden court. For the first month or so, the backdrop featured a grey PVC screen, which for various scenes was used to establish atmosphere, with Richard Haughton’s photo collages… intended also to establish the shift in scale between fairy scenes and human scenes (humans set against tall trees, fairies set against roots and flowers). For various practical reasons, the projections were later phased out.

There was afront curtain (another favourite Kemp item), made from sequinned Indian sarees, featured in the first prologue and then pulled down and dragged offstage by Puck. A little further upstage was a bright yellow silk curtain which flew in and out, and over the years this was repeatedly splattered, tie-dyed and distressed in various ways… a typical case of impulsive work-in-progress scenic experimentation.

Originally, Puck declared his chthonic nature by first emerging from the prompter’s box, and afterwards his aerial nature by flying in various scenes. But while the prompter’s box increasingly disappeared from stages around the world, Kemp (despite his terror for heights, and the numerous mishaps he encountered) persisted to the end with his flying scenes… mindful of his childhood wonder at flying performers in Christmas Pantomimes.

Another flying feature reminiscent of theatrical tradition and Elizabethan masque was the trapeze, an ornate deus ex macchina platform used to fly in or out either Titania, Puck or finally the reunited couple of Titania and Oberon.

          The costumes, designed by Kemp, featured extremely rich and rather Spanish-style Elizabethan-inspired court costumes, poor-theatre extremely amateur theatrical outfits for the mechanicals, and gossamer and tulle garments for the lunatic elves and fairies, who also sported assorted latex noses and ears. Puck had long pointed ears and, like all the fairies, all-over body painting with glitter. Painted or not, there was also a generous amount of naked flesh on show.

          The Cast varied considerablyover a production lifetime of almost a decade, but featured most of the greatest post-1975 LK Company members. Kemp, naturally did not vary (apart from a few occasional mishaps), nor did Jack Birkett, the Incredible Orlando, as Hippolyta and – above all – as an unforgettable Titania. Nor did François Testory, a beautiful scantily-clad dancing counter-tenor Changeling and an extremely absent-minded Mechanical, Snout.Everybody was kept busy playing two if not three roles (aristocrats, mechanicals or fairies), except for Puck. David Haughton created the Oberon-Theseus role, and after a few years passed his wand to the magnificent Michael Matou. Near the end of The Dream’s lifetime, the great dancer John Gilpin briefly played the role, as did Rupert Fraser and Kinny Gardner. Neil Caplan created Bottom (and the Beast), Atilio Lopez and Christian Michaelsen created Lysander and Demetrius, the former later replaced by Javier Sanz. Annie Huckle created Hermia and Giuliana Gratton Helena, roles later played by Nuria Moreno and Cheryl Heazelwood. The majority of these long-running Kemp Co. members, among its greatest talents, did not make it to the new millennium, taken away by AIDS.

          The music– unlike the highly contrasting collages of “Flowers” and “Salomé” – began mostly as a skilful blend created by Carlos Miranda, of Mendelssohn’s music inspired by Shakespeare’s play – vividly orchestrated for four live musicians, with Carlos on harpsichord and accordion, John Knight on strings and a series of changing musicians on flute and horn and cello. This was mixed with recorded atmospheres and effects for the fairy scenes, “actorish” fragments of Shakespeare, 1950s Elvis and 1920s John McCormack. As months turned into years, Miranda then gradually reworked almost all of the Mendelssohn and other musical numbers into his own compositions, while frequently echoing the originals: the result was a fully coherent contemporary music-theatre work with roots and resonances in the romantic and Elizabethan period… just like everything else in the production.

          Text and song – conceived for international touring and compliant with Kemp’s 95% non-verbal expressive languages, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (usually condensed into “The Dream”, “Il Sogno” or “El Sueño, depending on the country) nevertheless revelled in tongue-in-cheek Shakespearean homages in English, such as the actorish fragments in the Prologue, Oberon’s “My gentle Puck, come hither” monologue, the “Ill met by moonlight” dialogue, Titania and Oberon’s closing speeches, plus Mendelssohn’s “Lullaby” sung by The Changeling and Titania with full fairy chorus sung by all the fairies except for thosehopelessly tone-deaf. Also, during a shamelessly unauthorised sensual duet between Puck and the Changeling, François Testory sang and dancedCarlos Miranda’s setting oftwo otherworldly fragments of Rimbaud’s “Les Illuminations” in French.

Accompanying the often-heard elfin laughter echoing through the forest by night, the production’s leitmotif could frequently be heard, i.e. Puck’s exclamation: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”…an aptly playful motto for a child-like theatre-loving comic celebration of stage magic.


Key Scenes

The Prologue: after the Elisabethan music heard as the public enter, and after the houselights dim for the surprise of Elvis Presley’s singing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in the dark, fragments of old-fashioned Shakespearian voices are heard, mixed with night forest sounds and wisps of music. Eventually Puck is slowly revealed in front of the curtain, making fun of the voices and of his own earthy elfish nature, a cheeky nocturnal storyteller introducing the performance’s dreamlike atmosphere. Having disorientated and seduced the spectator, Puck the creator pulls down the lavish silk embroidered front curtain to reveal the first scene, showing Hippolyta’s exotic sensual Amazonsdancing moon-rituals, and then her capture and abduction by Theseus.

          In the forest by night –originally to Mendelssohn’s Scherzo, later to Miranda’sFairy Bacchanale –Puck dances, and one by one the fairies gather, laughing, teasing and cavorting madly. The Changeling joins them, and then Oberon… erotic excitement parading acrobatically in crescendo,climaxing and then dancing off together. Puck finds himself alone with the beautiful child, producing a slow lyrical falsetto Aria from the Changeling’s lips, to which the two dance sensually. Suddenly,3 peals of thunder and 3 voices crying “Zie kommt!” introduce a different fairy queen from Mozart’s, instead heralding Titania’s Entrance, descending on a silver trapeze from a great height, and dallying with The Changeling and three fairies as she sings her “Feed him with apricots” Aria. That this lavishly dressed fairy queen is a muscular man with a man’s voice is just another layer of mischievously overlapping references. Puck casts a flash-box spell that petrifies the group, and Oberon tries to carry off the boy… the famous “Ill met by moonlight” dialogue follows, before Titania disappears with the Changeling. A sizeable part of Oberon’s “My gentle Puck come hither” speech establishes the King-Fool relationship between the two, and the plot-line of the magic love-inducing flower.

          The First Court Scene is narrated exclusively through movement and music. Firstly the four lovers reveal their immaturity and confusion playing a game of blind man’s buff, in which everyone is blind, and gradually reveals who loves who and who doesn’t love who. Theseus and Titania observe, and then Theseus imposes the ‘correct’couplingfor marriage. He has them dance a court dance (the Jota) and leaves. The formal dance turns into rivalry, the two men quarrel and fight a spectacular duel, before escaping/pursuing into the forest.

          The Mechanicals’ rehearsal begins with Bottom’s practising with his toy-like wooden sword. Vocal cries, grunts, laughter and onstage performers playing accordion and trumpet pantomime the personalities, pratfalls and games, but the scene’s only words are brief repeated Shakespearean motifs such as “Romeo Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo?”… since the Pyramus and Thisbe play that Shakespeare used to parody his “Romeo and Juliet” is here re-parodied as itself. The absence of speech made the scene’scomedy comprehensible in all countries and continents.

          Puck’s Journey begins with him casting a stormy spell that disperses the mechanicals. His supernatural journey in search of the love-potion was portrayed differently in various versions, but mostly involved him flying on wires, finding himself above a dreamlike blue-lit silk sea, from which a drowned sailor emerged to hand him the magic silver flower… which he then carried back to Oberon. They laugh together.

          The lovers in the forest: Oberon and Puck observe “invisibly” as the exhausted Lysander and Hermia lie down to sleep. To test the flower’s magic, Oberon streaks their eyes. When Demetrius arrives with his sword and wakes Lysander, Lysander (to romantic music) falls in love with him (a poetic license much appreciated by the public), stands up fully naked, and kisses his rival… who flees in terror, pursued by enamoured youth. The same occurs when Hermia wakes (also naked) and falls in love with Helena, who flees, pursued. Oberon and Puck laugh uncontrollably… “what fools these mortals be”.

          The Lullaby, another fairy-painting romp, the scrabbling mischievous music of the “Ye spotted snakes” verses alternating with the romantic charm of the “Philomel with melody” choruses, with cold grotesque childish games in the former and warm painterly tableaus in the latter. At the end the fairies tiptoe off as Titania sleeps… and so does her sentinel, the Changeling. Oberon enters through the shadows, streaks the eyes of Titania with the magic flower, and triumphantly carries away the acquiescent Changeling in his arms.

          The Orgy­­– as it was known to the performers – departs further from Shakespeare, plunging further into Kemp’sDionysianimpulses, but without entirely forgetting the light-hearted nature of the play. In shadow-play, Puck casts an enchantment on Bottom… whose shadow grows to a monstrous height, as an electronic horror soundtrack roars like King Kong, while red smoke fills the stage and through the prompter’s box a mass of dirty black fur topped by a huge phallic horn struggles uncertainly to his feet… just recognisable as Bottom wrestling with his transformation. Puck leads him gently to Titania, wakes her and watches in delight as she falls in love with a beast that is no sweet donkey, but a shaggy Minotaur or a Mediaeval devil. As Titania caresses the stumbling beast, Puck climbs onto Titania’s trapeze and rises above the stage for a better view as he conducts the scene. The beast is aroused, the music becomes orgiastic, Titania and her beloved perform acrobatically, all four naked lovers can be seen coupling animalistically, and other fairies in the distance too, while Puck, on his own, triumphantly urges them all on. After the climax, an exhausted peace descends, dawn approaches to the soothing haunted brass of Miranda and Mendelssohn’s Nocturne, while the bodies on the stage are motionless. Oberon lifts the spell from Titania, and leads her and the Changeling away.

Punch wakes, descends, removes Bottom’s monstrous head and leads a very shaken man off, with the dreams in his head gently fading.

          The Wedding naturally happens to the famous Nuptial March, with the Changeling transformed into a dancing Cupid, shooting his arrows as one by one the three couples kiss and marry.

          The Play Scene,over the years became a masterpiece of simple, inventive poetic comedy, unfailingly winning the public’s heart and laughter. In naïve faded thespian costumes, to brilliant Music Hall-like compositions by Carlos Miranda, dominated by an operatic Romeo and a Juliet on six-foot stilts. A bumbling sleepy Snout plays the tree where the lovers meet in the forest.

          The Finale: after their comical tragedy the mechanicals hurry off to applause as the mood shifts to nocturnal and Oberon and Titania enter and declaim (“the iron tongue of midnight has told twelve…”) that “fairy time” has returned.They leave the stage to Puck, skipping and cartwheeling joyously, Kemp’s Puck and Puck’s Kemp, to be joined by all the fairies as they sing “hand in hand with fairy grace will we sing and bless this place”. Again Mendelssohn and Miranda combine in a magical diminuendo, blessing love and harmony, until Oberon and Titania fly slowly upwards, while all the fairies shuffle silently in a circle around them with tiny torchlights in their hands, the light and the four chords fading and ending as the last torch is turned out.

          The Bows are entirely danced, firstly to a high-speed version of the Lullaby and then ad libitum with a series of rousing Elisabethan songs… often lasting a further ten minutes, while Puck – however exhausted – continues to skip, cartwheel and cavort in total abandon.