When tradition is the true transgression

Theatre director Nanette Brimmer speaks to Teodor Reljic about staging this year’s edition of MADC’s ‘Shakespeare at San Anton’ series, which will be a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brimmer talks about taking the now-risky move of actually staging the play during the Bard’s own epoch, as well as the challenges that this consistent but beleaguered theatrical summer tradition faces

Julia Calvert as Titania and Antony Edridge as Oberon in MADC’s production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Julia Calvert as Titania and Antony Edridge as Oberon in MADC’s production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

How would you describe the Shakespeare at San Anton performances? What do you think they mean to theatre-goers around the island?

The gardens at San Anton offer great possibilities for staging Shakespeare productions. Whether the audience faces the Palace or the gardens, the backdrop is always pleasing. In the past, logistics were easier – the gardens were made available to the MADC free of charge together with backstage facilities, such as dressing rooms and so on. In recent years, this has all changed – the venue comes at a fee and backstage areas are very limited. Despite rising costs, the MADC have kept their ticket prices reasonable and so it follows that this unique open-air production is always staged at a loss. It is a great pity that it still appeals only to a select audience.

Apart from perhaps the Christmas pantos, these performances have been one of the most enduring and relatively unchanging events in the Maltese cultural calendar for a number of years. How do you think they contrast with the rest of the theatre scene in Malta, as it’s developed now?

This year marks the 65th MADC Shakespeare production. It is definitely a tradition and one which the Club is reluctant to dismiss, despite the losses incurred. Regrettably, audience numbers are not always encouraging. People think that the language will be difficult to understand – in fact, it has been noted that the better-known, popular plays are better attended because audiences are already familiar with the plot. This is a great pity as I spend a long time with my actors, dissecting the text in detail in order to give an interpretation that is as well understood as modern English. However, with so many other theatre productions on offer, audiences often opt for something more contemporary. 

How well-suited is A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular to the kind of set-up you have at San Anton, in your opinion, and why?

This year we’re using the gardens as a backdrop – it couldn’t be any other way as most of the action takes place in a wood outside the mythical Athens we’ve created. Audiences have to walk up a path that runs through the gardens to get to the seating area, so in a way, they’re already being drawn in as spectators to the goings on that follow. The surroundings will hopefully make them feel like they are invisible onlookers... just like the invisible faeries and sprites that roam around and cause mischief and havoc.

Nanette Brimmer playing Puck in a 1997 MADC production of the same play
Nanette Brimmer playing Puck in a 1997 MADC production of the same play

When you first took on the play, what were your intentions with regard to staging this classic? And did it change as you went along?

It is bound to be repeated over and over, but especially this year, which marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, that the Bard’s writings are as contemporary today as they were 400 odd years ago. To prove that point, my initial concept was to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream in “modern” times, and a 60s hippie image immediately conjured itself up in my mind’s eye.  What better decade to convey the unruly goings on among flower people, than that promiscuous time when we had Summers of Love, drug-induced hallucinations, and girls defying their fathers and running off with lovers? Which is basically the plot of the play.

I spent weeks designing sets, costumes, posters and attempting to synchronise the lyrics of the faeries’ lullaby to their queen to the music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez or even to Scott McKenzie’s anthem. I was very excited!  Until it suddenly dawned on me that the 60s was not exactly “contemporary”. I was a flower power teenager and as most of my age will identify with me, those of us who grew up in that era will always be Forever Young, but the 60s were 50 years ago! I also realised that in the last 10 years or so, most of the MADC’s annual Shakespeare plays were given a twist, different eras, pre/post war, even a hint of a futuristic notion, taking liberties with exchanging roles – having females play male roles, which is the total opposite of the way things were in the 1600s.  They all brought a fresh take, an imaginative experience and further proved  what we all know too well : that Shakespeare’s plays can be performed any which way, and they will still work.

So how to be innovative? Followed by why be innovative? Because it is now somehow expected? Why not celebrate this genius playwright by performing one of his plays as it might have been performed shortly after he wrote it (with the exception that females will play female roles)? Tossing this idea around, it also became apparent that many members of our loyal audience who come to San Anton Gardens for this long-standing open air production have been yearning for a play “in costume”.  So, for all the above reasons, we decided to go “traditional” and on a Maltese Midsummer Night, we invite you to journey with us to a mythical and mystical Athens...

How did you set about assembling the cast, and was it a challenging process? 

Cast selection is always done through auditions, and I have to admit that the number of people who turned up was encouraging! Most of them, however, were what I jokingly called “Shakespeare virgins” – they had never acted in any of Shakespeare’s plays and their knowledge of the Bard was limited to the classroom. So, yes, I did face quite a few challenges, but as a director, it gives me enormous pleasure to bring the text to life and, especially with Shakespeare, I derive great joy and satisfaction when I see an actor’s face light up when he or she understands the meaning and the underlying subtleties in the script – and then proceeds to give an expressive interpretation. I have stressed, over and over, during rehearsals, that unless the actor actually understands what s/he is saying, then they cannot deliver their lines fluently and coherently. 

Finally, would you say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains relevant to audiences today?

As previously mentioned, Shakespeare’s plays will, in some way or other, always remain relevant to the past, the present and, I’m quite sure, the future. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Queen of the Faeries – Titania – has a long monologue about Nature being disrupted, how the seasons have altered, when you get frosts in summer and summer flowers blooming in winter, and how humans can no longer distinguish which season is which. This was written over 400 years ago and yet, today’s climate change is depicting these very verses! A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also one play in which all the female protagonists rebel against male domination, speak up for their rights and demand dignity – so that is certainly a relevant topic these days!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be staged at the San Anton Gardens, Attard every evening at 19:45 until July 24, with the exception of July 18. Bookings: www.madc.com.mt, [email protected] or by calling 7777 6232