A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO
The Daily News Egypt
STUDENTS STAGE SHAKESPEAREAN STUNNER
For many, a sentence containing the words “Shakespeare” and “university” brings to mind nightmares of long monologues in iambic pentameter and tedious essays on symbolism. However, there was nothing dull about the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) dreamy production of the Bard’s most accessible play.
Director Mark ‘Coach’ Mineart and his crew of 160 students called on the audience to embrace the absurd in a sidesplitting rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Malak Gabr Arts Theatre. The enchantingly simple set and whimsical fairy costumes set the scene well, but it was the excellent cast of confounded lovers, naughty fauns, and talking moons with pet dogs that brought the show to life.
The mischievous Puck, played by Yacoub Masri, could not have played the part better, leading the audience on a merry romp that kept them laughing through all five acts. Watching the lovers play ring-around-the-rosie was certainly entertaining but the night belonged to the Rude Mechanicals whose unrestrained silliness in the second act would have had Shakespeare himself rolling on the floor. Omar Kamal’s cross-dressing in the role of Thisbe was just the right mix of outrageous and goofy, with his high-pitched voice and occasionally malfunctioning cleavage. Wall, Lion, and Moonshine captured the playwright’s wit and dry humour perfectly in their Inception-esque play-within-a-play.
But Hussein Seif El Nasr, playing the lovable Bottom, was the indisputable star of the evening, improvising half a dozen different deaths in the play’s final scene, each more absurd than the last. Although the Duke of Athens was decidedly unimpressed with the performance, the troupe of aspiring actors won the audience’s approval without a doubt, bringing a great production to a rousing end.
Though the trek all the way out to New Cairo might seem daunting, it is absolutely worth your while.
As part of the theatre program in the Department of the Arts, students have staged a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of William Shakespeare’s most popular and widely performed comedies.
“I had known since arriving at AUC in Fall 2011 that I was interested in doing a Shakespeare play with the students here and for the audiences of greater Cairo,” said Mark Mineart, associate professor of practice in performance and director of the play. “Shakespeare is arguably one of the greatest writers in any language and has had a significant impact on world culture. Yet, very sadly, I would say that the majority of native English speakers have never seen a Shakespeare play, and that number is undoubtedly much lower for those who speak English as a second, third or even fourth language. I could not think of a better play than A Midsummer Night’s Dream to give to our students and our audiences as an introduction to the incredible wit, beauty, brilliance and fun of the world’s greatest playwright.”
Most of the action took place in an enchanted forest. “The characters were all drawn to it for different reasons,” Mineart said. “The lovers came seeking love, while the Mechanicals needed a rehearsal space. Once they entered the realm of the Fairies, though, they were subject to all sorts of magic.”
And the Shakespearean language was not a deterrent, Mineart affirmed. “This is a vibrant, funny, romp of a play,” he said. “It is also Shakespeare’s most accessible play, and the acting company and I worked diligently to bring the text to life in a way that was inviting and easy to enjoy for our audiences.”
Indeed, for many the language was central to the play's appeal. “The thing that struck me in that first experience, and which has stayed with me ever since, is the musicality of the language,” said Hilary Baboukis, who played Helena, one of the Athenian youth. “As a singer, I love the way that Shakespeare hits the ear –– the way the sounds fit together and ring, the colorful vocabulary and the rhythm of the text. Speaking Shakespeare's language is very satisfying, so simply getting to hear and speak these beautiful words was one of the big pleasures of the show for me.”
Sharing the same viewpoint was Nour Refaat, who played Titania, queen of the fairies. “The most challenging thing was really relishing the language while speaking. Through the language, the characters' intentions really came across,” she said. “It's an absolutely beautiful language.”
While retaining the language of Shakespeare, the production opted for a more modern style of dress for its characters. “We placed the play in the late 1800s or early 1900s, primarily for the look and flow of the clothes of that time,” Mineart added.
Though Mineart was at the helm, the production was almost entirely the work of students. In addition to a cast of 23 student actors, the students assisted in every design area, in addition to serving as assistant director and production stage manager. They built and painted the sets, constructed and collected props, and sewed costumes. “Once we got to opening night,” Mineart said, “the faculty were completely out of the picture, and the students were in control and responsible for the entire run of the production.”
Students appreciated the chance to make the play their own. “There is an incredible sense of community among the cast,” said Baboukis. “It was 21 hours of rehearsal a week; we spent more time with one another than with our parents! If you don't feel like a family (or possibly a small village) by the end of it, you're probably doing something wrong. It was a massive cast, 23 people, plus our fabulous assistant director, stage manager and assistant stage manager, but we've really clicked. We all got along well, and it's been that way from the start. The easiest analogy might be that of a sports team. We spent all our time together, worked together, played together, sweated and bled together, and we couldn't succeed in what we did without one another. That sense of group reliance formed an incredible bond among us.”
The performances were the culmination of thousands of hours of work by different groups across the University. The music program provided composition and voice training to the performers, as well as a student to operate the theatre’s sound board, while the graphic design unit held a competition in which 42 student designers competed for the opportunity to design the production’s publicity materials.
The performance aligned with a course Mineart has been teaching that focuses on performing Shakespeare onstage. Moving beyond just reading Shakespeare is essential, Mineart noted. “This course introduced students to Shakespeare not as literature, but as dramatic literature,” he pointed out. “The reading of Shakespeare was done only as a first step to performing it.”
Mineart hopes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream offered a counterpoint to the strife that Egypt currently faces. “It’s a romantic comedy, incredibly funny and entertaining, but it’s not an empty confection,” he said. “It is a play that speaks on behalf of love and joy, two things that need to be remembered and nurtured, especially now, when so many people are very angry and unknowingly seeking a spark to set them off.
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Four Hundred and Eighty Six Words
Shakespeare. For most people his name is a dirty word. A name first encountered in English or Literature class, where you were forced to read and maybe even memorize 400 year old poetry concerning kings and queens you couldn’t care less about. Horrible!
And I agree with you. That was my first experience of Shakespeare too. It wasn’t until my parents actually took me to see a Shakespeare play that things changed. I was twelve years old, the play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I have been a rabid fan of Shakespeare ever since.
And if you’ll be kind enough to read on, I’ll share with you a couple of dirty little secrets about Shakespeare that the scholars might not want you to know...
First, Shakespeare was popular entertainment. That’s right, Shakespeare wasn’t ever intended to be high-brow, artistic, or culturally significant. Shakespeare was a working man living away from home with a family to support. He was expected to put food on the table, he didn’t have a lot of time for ‘Art.’ Shakespeare’s plays were meant to do two things only: entertain people and make money.
People went to the theatre in Elizabethan England the way we go to the movies today. It was cheap, popular entertainment. In Shakespeare’s day the price to see a play was one penny. Going to see Macbeth for them was like going to see The Lord of the Rings is for us. The idea of Shakespeare’s plays as some highfalutin, pretentious, egg-head form of art is ridiculous. And I’ll tell you this for nothing too, if Shakespeare were alive today...he’d be writing television.
Second, Shakespeare was never meant to be read. Ever. Shakespeare’s plays were not even published until after he died. Books were expensive, most people couldn’t read, and Shakespeare didn’t want competing theatres stealing his plays. Even the actors didn’t get the whole play. Paper was expensive, plus everything had to be copied out by hand, which cost money and took time. Each actor got a bunch of little scraps of paper with his lines on them. Reading a Shakespeare play and thinking you are getting Shakespeare is like looking at a piece of sheet music and thinking you are getting a song.
The only way that Shakespeare was ever meant to be experienced was in live performance.
And that being the case, I am going to ask a favor of you...
If you are not a fan of Shakespeare, give us half an hour. That’s all. Give us half an hour of your undivided attention right from the top of the show. Give us half an hour and see if we can’t get you excited by this rollicking romantic comedy. Give us half an hour, that’s all, and we might just be able to change your mind about old Bill Shakespeare.