For the first time in New Zealand, Tim Crouch will present his alternate take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Auckland theatregoers.
Experimental UK theatre-maker Tim Crouch’s I, Peaseblossom retells the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the perspective of Peaseblossom, a fairy servant and minor character. While the show is designed for a younger audience in mind, Crouch describes the material as being equally effective for all ages. Expect dream-symbolism, direct storytelling, a philosophical treatise on the nature theatre itself and, of course, an examination of love.
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NATHAN JOE: Tell me about why you’re bringing this particular show to Auckland?
TIM CROUCH: I have a series of these shows, some of them are alive, some of them are in mothballs. The show that has perhaps been most alive is a show called I, Malvolio, which is the character of Malvolio from Twelfth Night. In I, Malvolio I enlist the audience in an attempt to hang myself, to much comedic effect. This show has played in Sydney Festival, Brisbane Festival, Melbourne, and others, but we’re going to Malaysia and the problem is in Malaysia they hang people.
NJ: Right [awkward laugh].
TC: The [British] Council being the beautiful, sensitive, diplomatic organisation it is didn’t feel that Malvolio would go down particularly well in Malaysia. So when they saw me do Peaseblossom in Singapore, I was also doing Malvolio in this double-bill, and Peaceblossom felt like—can I say innocent? It’s certainly innocent as Malaysian capital punishment is concerned. Nobody is hurt in Peaseblossom. No attempt is made to harm anyone. It’s full of love. So if the British Council is interested in spreading good feelings, then Peaseblossom is the right show to do.
It’s a show I did in New York a couple of years ago. I ran it in New York and I’ve run it on and off for many years since I first wrote it. And I keep thinking I must be much too old for it now. I’m much too old to play a fairy. Then one of the jokes or one of the joys of the show is, I think, in theatre, particularly in this show, anything and anyone can be anything and anyone. There is a bigger gag to be had by a middle-aged man playing a fairy, than to have some young fairy-looking person playing a fairy. The contradiction is a joy. To exist in that contradiction is a great pleasure. So that’s why I’m doing Peaseblossom really.
NJ: And why did you choose this particular character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
TC: The principle behind these pieces is to take a minor character from a Shakespeare play and look at the play from their perspective, and Peaseblossom is a fantastic candidate for that because he has maybe just three words in the whole play.
I like the idea of reclaiming minor characters. For many years in my late twenties and early thirties I was a traditional actor. You know, one of those rep actors who goes around the country. I had my fair share of small parts in Shakespeare plays. And, you know, if you’re an actor playing a small part in a Shakespeare play, the play is inevitably about your character. What is it somebody said? An actor playing the gravedigger in Hamlet. “So what’s Hamlet about?” And he said, “Well it’s about this gravedigger.” And I feel the same. What’s Midsummer Night’s Dream about? Well, it’s about this fairy. I could have done Mustard Seed, I suppose. I could have done Cobweb or Moth, but I, Peaseblossom sounds best. And it gives me great license to imagine, to explore.
I tell the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through a series of increasingly fevered dreams he has. Dreams that include him losing all his teeth, marrying Mustard Seed, and being naked in front of an audience. They’re sort of classic Jungian dream scenarios, and through them I thread the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I thread ideas about love, sex, and abuse. Because, if you know A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you know that the image of love and marriage presented by the play is pretty awful. Titania is drugged by her husband—it’s the first instance of Rohypnol (love in idleness). He drugs her so she falls in love with the first thing she sees, and he makes her fall in love with a donkey. It’s pretty vicious stuff and the idea of a little kid standing outside of that and watching grown ups behaving so badly to each other felt like one of the triggers to the show. And, also, I think of all the shows I do—all of my repertoire—perhaps it is the show I enjoy doing most. That’s probably the best answer.
NJ: Do you expect audiences to know anything about A Midsummer Night’s Dream before going into the show?
TC: You absolutely don’t need to. You meet the character and the character exists independent of the Shakespeare play. This is not a play that is a bleak and impressionistic response to a Shakespeare play, if that makes sense. It’s got its own logic, continuum, and trajectory from beginning, middle, to end. It begins in a way where A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends. It begins on the night of the weddings, where Peaseblossom has been instructed, as have all the fairies, by Oberon to bless the nuptials. And he’s been blessing the nuptials and it’s now 4:30 in the morning, and he’s screamingly tired and he falls asleep and has a series of dreams. And at the end of the final dream he dies, and it’s his death in the dream that wakes him up.
NJ: I’m quite excited to hear that. Because there is this tendency for playwrights who take on Shakespeare adaptations to approach it from a deconstructionist point-of-view, an assault on the text that is almost academic. Like here is Othello from Desdemona’s point-of-view and watch how I think the story is in actual fact, or…
TC: Or I will make assumptions about an audience or I will make this piece of work in response to other pieces of work. I mean the great thing about focusing on a young audience is that they can smell that bullshit from a mile way. That’s harsh actually, but they know if the motivation and the principals behind the work are kind of phony or pretentious or self-reflective or inward facing. And I hope my primary objective in this piece is to tell you a really good story and introduce you to a character you will kind of fall in love with.
I think I invite the audience to co-author the work. Even in Peaseblossom there are eight characters that the audience represent, in role, in the show. I invite the audience to be active. And I invite them to think as well, because thinking can actually be one of the greatest pleasures in life. We’ve got slightly stuck on the idea of theatre as entertainment or spectacle. Theatre takes the batteries out of an audience’s brain and stimulates their visual sense. It’s Bertolt Brecht who talked the concept of spass, of fun, in theatre. And he connected that very much to intellectual exercise. Not po-faced, not super serious, it’s not like that. You can have great time thinking. And I think we mistrust our pleasure in thinking.
NJ: Do you reject or embrace that label as a leading experimental theatre maker then?
TC: I kind of question the word experimental. I think if a work of art—any work of art—is not to some degree experimenting with things that have gone before then I don’t know what it is. The idea of an artist revisiting old tracks, I can’t see how that’s possible. Though I do know people do that. To some profound degree, all art should be experimental. Otherwise, replicating old forms is no fun for anyone. So I do slightly question it because, above all, what I try and do is explore the role of the storyteller. And the storyteller is the oldest form of them all, theatrically. I’m always a little surprised that people call me radical or, you know, pushing the boundaries. And sometimes the reason they think that is because I’m just doing things really simply. I’m relying on a live engagement with an audience. I’m relying on a need to communicate and deliver narrative. I don’t make non narrative-based work. I don’t get non narrative-based work greatly. I don’t get it. I think I go to theatre to be told a story. And I hope my audience will certainly get a story from me.
NJ: And do you find there’s more value in creating—even if they’re new works based on old works—than there is in staging old works?
TC: That’s a really good question, and not an easy one to come down glibly on. I think it’s really important that when you stage old works you stage them contemporaneously. I don’t think you have to wear up-to-date clothes, though I do not understand the doublet and hose Shakespeare, and I also don’t understand the all-male Shakespeare. I actually get a little bit worked up about the all-male Shakespeare, partly because I think women have it bad enough. And I don’t understand why it’s perceived to be historically important or contemporarily important. Our predilection nowadays to dress our Shakespeare productions in 400-year old fashion styles—I don’t see that as a more authentic way of doing Shakespeare. I’m a pluralist, in that I believe anyone is allowed or able to do whatever they want. But I don’t get it personally.
NJ: If anything it makes it more inaccessible for modern audiences, to try to replicate a period setting.
TC: Yeah. So we need to find what’s in those plays for now. I’m making these solo pieces not because I want you to see them and not see the original. Man, I want you to see the original, but I’m excited about an audience going to see I, Peaseblossom and going to see Midsummer Night’s Dream and just having a whole new perspective. I also wanted to some degree to challenge the great man of history, the great man view of history, that history is made by the great men. Men is the apposite word there, because Hadrian’s wall was not built by Hadiran. It was built by thousands of people labouring over many years, but we can easily forget the small people. So I’m excited to, like in these I, Shakespeare pieces, to put the small people centre stage.
NJ: I’m curious about that one-day workshop you’re doing, the adapting Shakespeare workshop. Tell me what people should expect from that.
TC: It connects to what we talked about. The contemporising of Shakespeare, I suppose. Not distancing him, but finding our modern selves in him. Now I don’t mean updating necessarily, but I think there are these incredible archetypes and symbolism in Shakespeare, so finding contemporary analogues for that stuff feels very important. And also language. That’s the joyful thing about Shakespeare. He says, “Piece out your imperfections with your thoughts.” Our imperfections with our thoughts. He talks about the audience completing the process of transformation, and the words being so brilliantly crafted to enable the audience to see the things. Yet in Shakespeare’s day they weren’t shown. And I suppose there’s a parallel their with my work, where I’ll usually say I won’t show you these things but you’ll see them. So I won’t show you a fairy, but I’ll show you me, name myself as such a thing, but not for one second convince you that’s what I am. So through language and through the establishment of a contract with the audience we work together. In relation to the workshop it will be around those themes. Finding out contemporary access points into Shakespeare’s work so that we can find our own parallels.