Tom Morris, who directed the National Theatre and the Handspring Puppet Company in the acclaimed stage production of War Horse, comes to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to direct a unique production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring the Handspring Puppet Company and actors from the Bristol Old Vic, where he currently serves as artistic director. What follows is an e-mail interview The Arts Paper Editor David Brensilver conducted with Morris about his turn at Shakespeare’s classic play.
DB: You’ve described your collaborations with the Handspring Puppet Company as theatrical experimentation. Would you talk about the audience’s role in this exploration of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
TM: For me, the audience is at the heart of any theatrical experiment. A theatrical experiment is not something devised in the private of a rehearsal room and then inflicted on whichever audience turns up: It’s always an invitation to an audience to participate. In this case, our tools are puppets, and those tools work by triggering the imagination and emotion of the audiences who watch them. If the audience don’t believe the puppet is alive, then the puppet is not alive. In many ways it’s pure theater. This show is experimental because it makes that invitation in many different ways, some of which are highly unconventional. But none of those experiments have any meaning or validity until they take shape in the imaginations of those who see the show.
DB: If the magical qualities of this play invite this sort of storytelling investigation, what pitfalls in terms of connecting with audiences come with that invitation? Have you had concerns about audiences being distracted from the story given the transparent nature of this production, or do you believe that bolsters audience engagement?
TM: Yes, we take risks in this show, and audiences will probably find some moments where you need to work a little to stay with the story. And the variety of experiment in the show means that different audience members might find that at different points. But our overwhelming experience in Bristol is that the journey pays off.
DB: How did you approach the presentation of humor in this staging without diminishing the production’s sincerity? Did the puppets add to that challenge?
TM: The best jokes are funny because they are believable, which means you have to find the truth for the character even in the most absurd situations. That is our aim, and if we succeed, the joke gets funnier.
DB: Talk, if you would, about the perhaps unfamiliar responsibilities the actors have had in presenting the work in this way. It seems that the characters are, in a sense, divided between their human portrayers and the puppets. How do the actors divide those responsibilities?
TM: The actors always know where the focus of the character is. In other words they are either playing through the puppet or through their own bodies.
DB: How have you taken advantage of the element of transparency that this presentation offers? Does the ethereal quality of the work itself play into that?
TM: Yes – I think by “transparency” you mean what some call “poor theatre” or what others call “theatre of the imagination,” in other words theatre which reveals its own mechanisms, making manifest its imaginative contract with the audience. That sounds complicated but in fact it’s simple. It’s like the prologue to Henry V. “Think, when we speak of horses, that you see them printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth.” And in a play which is partly about seeing things that aren’t there, and feeling things that can’t be explained, this feels like a rich language.
DB: This production can be viewed as an exploration of the very essential elements of theater and storytelling, can it not?
TM: Thank you. I think it can. But hopefully in a fun way. We don’t want it to feel like a class!
DB: As much as War Horse embraced realism, this production celebrates the fantasy of Shakespeare’s play. Was that a driving force behind choosing this work?
TM: Exactly as you’ve already implied. In many ways the subject of the play is the changeability of the hearts, minds, and even bodies of its characters. We have tried to embrace that in a way that is both truthful and playful.
DB: What was discussed early on in terms of the puppets’ design and their roles in telling the story, when you and the Handspring Puppet Company’s Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones embarked on this project?
TM: We talked a lot about the very questions you have raised, of course, and then I simply asked Adrian to dream his own dreams in response to the play, which has created the visual language of the play. In some ways, our version of Hippolyta in the play is a bit like Adrian: a carver of images who dreams those images into life. That’s what Basil and Adrian have done for the last 30 years.
Visit artidea.org for detailed information about performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.