Puck on Film

by Allen W. Wright

A Midsummer Night's Dream (2021)

Directed by Peter Pasyk
Stratford Festival

A MIdsummer Night's Dream from Stratford Festival

Returning from the Pandemic

Stratford, Ontario is a small Canadian city that shares a name with the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Starting in 1953, it began annual theatrical seasons anchored in part by a Shakespearean production. For decades, Stratford was a vital part of Canada's artistic life.

And then, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic happened, and a whole season was cancelled.

When the Stratford Festival returned in 2021, it reflected the new reality. The production was performed outdoors, to a reduced audience and with a reduced cast who were keeping their distance from each other.

Director Peter Pasyk's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was recorded on July 30, 2021 and stands as a record of a particular time.

But if this Dream is evidence of our recent past (and as I write this in mid-2022, still pretty much our present), then it also harks back to the more distant past. The very first productions at Stratford in the 1950s were performed under a big tent. And when William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1590s, London's theatres had recently been closed due to a plague.

Trish Lindstrom as Puck in Stratford's 2021 A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Reawakening

As the play begins, the stage is covered in a large white sheet. Underneath the sheet is a large box -- in a shape suggesting a bed or a coffin or a magician's cabinet holding the promise of wonders and illusions. We hear loud snoring and as the sheet is lifted we find Puck sleeping on the cabinet. 

The sheets and box imagery are not new to this Dream. Similar imagery occurs in Julie Taymor's 2014 production and the Bridge Theatre's 2019 production. But it takes on a special resonance as both the theatrical company and the audience are also awakening from a long rest.

Puck enjoys the sensation of flight, until the sheets are pulled all the way back. Then she or he or they or it -- Robin Goodfellow's gender has often been hard to pin down -- starts screaming as Puck awakens to the reality of 2021. 

Trish Lindström's Puck has a punk sensibility to .... her, him, them, it? It's not uncommon to see a punk Puck, and this specific Puck seems largely inspired by the thug Alex DuLarge from Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, memorably played by Malcolm McDowell. But Lindström's hair is more impossibly orange than McDowell's. For many Canadians, it might call to mind Conko the Clown, the logo of Conklin Shows which provided amusements to exhibitions, festivals and even parking lots for decades.

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange

Malcolm McDowell as Alex
A Clockwork Orange

Conko the Clown, logo of Conklin Shows

Conko the Clown
Conklin Shows

Puck notices the audience and breaks from Shakespeare's text to ask "Are you here for the show? It's been a long time." Puck banters with the audience -- even giving the weather report. Shakespeare's Puck pretty much broke the fourth wall, so this is well within the tradition. But it also suggests that director Peter Pasyk is going to play with the text.

"I got go," Puck announces as she pulls a suit jacket from the cabinet. Next she puts on a neck tie, choking herself with the symbol of conformity. Puck only stops choking when she commits fully to the transformation by pulling off her bowler hat and orange wig.

In its place is the balding hair of Egeus -- father of Hermia.

Trish Lindstrom becomes Egeus

It's long been part of A Midsummer Night's Dream theatrical tradition to double up the parts of the fairy court and Theseus's court. But Puck's most common double part, that of the attendant Philostrate has been cut from this production. So, instead Lindström transforms into Egeus -- an effective change.

This opening sequence is fantastical, non-naturalistic and pure stage craft. It reminds those of us who spent 2020 and early 2021 only watching movies and TV on Netflix and other streaming services that the stage is a different medium. Where you can see the artifice displayed openly, and yet be thoroughly absorbed into the reality of the show.

Egeus / Puck borrows Peter Quince's line from Act V used to describe the mechanicals' play, "If we offend, it is with our goodwill". It makes a nice book end to Puck's epilogue "If we shadows have offended..." It also signals that this production will reassign lines to different characters and also to shorten the text. (Although Quince does repeat the line in its traditional place.)

Athens in Stratford Festival's 2021 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Modern Athens

As we've seen with the other reviews for Puck on Film, the classical Athens of Greek myth that the play purports to be set in is rarely depicted as such. We've seen any variety of settings -- both times past and times that never were. This one depicts an modern-day Athens. Craig Lauzon's Theseus and Bahareh Yaraghi's Hippolyta are clad in white bathrobes, suggestive of the wealthy of today, but also hinting towards ancient robes. 

Another hint to the present is when Egeus pulls out his mobile phone to show the court what love tokens that Hermia and Lysander have exchanged. The shocked reactions suggests perhaps a certain kind of picture that men of today may share.

Micah Woods, Jonathan Mason and Eva Foote are all in fine form as Lysander, Demetrius and Hermia, respectively -- roles can be thankless except for the comic dissension. The true standout of the Athenian Youths is Amaka Umeh as Helena. 

Costume designer Lorenzo Savoini has given Helena the classic geek costume of glasses, a bowtie and a tweed waistcoat. One might think Helena had just come from a comic convention, cosplaying Matt Smith's 11th Doctor from Doctor Who. Initially Umeh plays up the awkwardness of the character, but soon we see the raging passions underneath. Then again, given the accessories that the Athenians have upon waking from their slumber, you could assume they all have hidden passions.

Athenian Youths in the 2021 Stratford Festival production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius

Amaka Umeh as Helena

Amaka Umeh as Helena

But the reduced cast gives the four Athenian lovers a chance to play four different Athenians -- the "rude mechanicals" of Nick Bottom's amateur acting troop. Normally the mechanicals double as members of the fairy court -- and they do triple-duty here, at least as the voices of the fairies. (The fairies themselves are played by stick puppets.) 

But seeing the same actors play both the lovers and the mechanicals shows off their impressive range.

The Rude Mechanicals and the  Bergomask dance at Stratford, 2021

The only part which is not either doubled or tripled in this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is André Sills as Bottom. The single role allows him to rule the stage with comic, and sometimes quite forceful, bravado.

Titania certainly seems to appreciate Bottom, and perhaps not just because of a love potion.

André Sills as Bottom, surrounded by the fairies

The Games Oberon and Titania Play

There are some elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream that modern audiences might deem problematic. As with some of the other modern productions, there's no mention of the Indian boy who is the object of both Oberon and Titania's affections, and the source of their argument. 

And then, there's the matter of Oberon bewitching Titania to fall in love with an ass. The King of Shadows basically roofies the Fairy Queen to teach her a lesson. The 2019 Bridge Theatre production solved that problem by swapping out the roles -- making it Titania who bewitches Oberon. 

But director Peter Pasyk tries a different approach. He doesn't change Oberon and Titania's roles. But he swaps a few lines of dialogue. It leaves the impression that Titania enjoyed making love to Bottom and was very much in control of her actions.

Shakespeare's Text:


How came these things to pass?

O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!


Silence awhile.—Robin, take off this head.—

My transcription of the Stratford Festival 2021 performance


Oh, ho. Your eyes must loath his visage now.

[Titania gives a broad, knowing smile to the audience.]


Robin, take off his head. [Claps.] Hee-haw.

[Oberon chuckles and bows -- impressed with how Titania has played the game.]

Bahareh Yaraghi as Titania, with her knowing laugh

Bahareh Yaraghi as Titania

Oberon and Puck in the 2021 Stratford production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Craig Lauzon as Oberon and Trish Lindström as Puck

Instead of surrendering to Oberon's will, Titania has triumphed. And it is Oberon who shows all due respect. This is a very sex-positive version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but then again ... aren't most of them? 
Trish Lindstrom's Puck asks for our hands, if we be friends

Concluding thoughts

This is not a revolutionary take of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Peter Pasyk isn't going to shake the foundations of the theatre the way that Peter Brook did back in the 70s. 

But then, that's not really the same aim here. This stands as a showcase for the delights of live theatre, with all its artifice and non-naturalistic flourishes. 

It's 95 minutes of joy, that allows you to forget the troubles of the world and indulge in some play. If it holds a mirror up to nature, it's a fun house mirror. 

Trish Lindström crosses her fingers when she says "as I am an honest Puck." She needn't have bothered her delightful anarchic Puck is just what the doctor ordered. Robin Goodfellow did restore amends.

This production and the rest of the 2021 season will be on STRATFEST@HOME from January to September 2022.

Where to go from here:



1935: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle with Mickey Rooney as Puck

1968: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Peter Hall with Ian Holm as Puck

1981: The BBC Television Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Elijah Moshinsky with Phil Daniels as Puck


1996: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Adrian Noble with Barry Lynch as Puck

1999: William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Michael Hoffman with Stanley Tucci as Puck

Modern Versions

2005: ShakespeaRe-Told: A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Peter Bowker and directed by Ed Fraiman with Dean Lennox Kelly as Puck

2016: A Midsummer Night's Dream, adapted by Russell T. Davies and directed David Kerr with Hiran Abeysekera as Puck

2017: A Midsummer Night's Dream, written and directed by Casey Wilder Mott with Avan Jogia as Puck

Cinema Broadcasts of Live Theatre

2013: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe), directed by Dominic Dromgoole with Matthew Tennyson as Puck

2014: Julie Taymor's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Julie Taymor with Kathryn Hunter as Puck

2019: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bridge Theatre / National Theatre Live), directed by Nicholas Hytner with David Moorst as Puck

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