Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – An Exploration of Shakespeare through a Caribbean Lens

William Shakespeare – a name that elicits the collective eye-roll/groan combo of students and triggers flashbacks to those that managed to survive the labyrinth of the seemingly encrypted language. But why is it that after over 400 years, the Bard’s work is still relevant? And what does this late 16th, early 17th century work have to do with Trinbagonian, and by extension, Caribbean culture and literature?

On Saturday 1st of April, The University of the West Indies’ Department of Creative and Festival Arts staged Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Set in Athens, star crossed lovers Hermia (Angelia Bissoon) and Lysander (Anderson Subero) defies her father, Egeus’ (Gervon Abraham) demand that she marries Demetrius (Aaron Phillip), and she confides in her friend Helena (Nanyamka Wellington) of their plot to escape into the forest. Hoping to sway Demetrius’ unrequited love, Helena informs him of the plan, following him into the forest in his search for Hermia. This classic comedy has multiple subplots as simultaneously, Theseus (Emmanuel Ansolia), the duke has conquered the Amazon Queen Hyppolyta (Kasonia Nicholls) and is about to wed. In the magical forest, King of the fairies – Oberon (also by Emmanuel Ansolia), employs his mischievous sprite, Puck (Danielle Ryan), to drop the juice of a magic love flower into his wife Titania’s (also Kasonia Nicholls) eyes as punishment for her disobedience. Puck is also ordered to bewitch Demetrius so that he would hold affection for Helena. However, it goes awry as Lysander and Demetrius look alike, resulting in both men being spellbound by the love juice, vying for Helena’s affection. Adding to the confusion and pockets of comic relief is the group of laborers (Brendon LaCaille, Shanika Mitchell, Uchena Myers, Justin Goddard, Donovan Daniel, Zion McNeil) and their clumsy performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

One can argue that Shakespeare’s work has been overdone. Having seen multiple stagings myself, I was eagerly anticipating the creative liberties that would be taken, or lack thereof. Director Michailean Taylor did not disappoint. He did not seek to reinvent the proverbial wheel or Trini-fy language, yet there existed an undeniable Caribbean-ness. The most striking and effective creative decision was the playful, sometimes powerful nod to traditional Trinidadian folk dance and folklore. With magical realism being one of the main themes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” integrating something so familiar proved to be successful, though I wished this idea was explored more.

The production opened on Puck, a capricious and mischievous fairy emboldened with magical capabilities, this character has the ability to break the fourth wall, serving as narrator. It was Ryan’s opening musical number in which she seemingly embodied a chantuelle – traditionally the lead singer of a call and response type song – that set the tone for the rest of the evening. A prudent and symbolic decision in which the call was made and it was up to the audience to answer. This was reinforced by the parallel between Shakespearean English and Trinidadian English Creole. The original dialogue follows a particular rhythm, akin to a heartbeat, as it is penned in iambic pentameter. The natural and consistent rise and drop of alternating words mirror that of the ‘sing-song’ nature of our local tongue. This familiarity, together with Ryan’s exceptional pacing and body language weaves together a character that is not only believable, but one that the audience can relate to and trust. 

Further instances of folk-ness were portrayed via dance, as the love triangle resulted in Lysander and Demetrius going head to head in battle, contesting for Helena’s heart. The conflict was pierced by the echoes of African drums, promptly transforming the Athenian duo into Bois Men. The magical forest momentarily turned into a Gayelle and their Greecian swords transfigured into bois, each swing and block a boastful display of masculinity. This motif of folk dance was echoed throughout the rest of the production, appearing most notably during Oberon and Titania’s reconciliation. With one circling the other, a Bélé-esque dance ensued. The whimsical nature of the Bélé is fitting to this fantasy world with its grand bows, spins and dips. This is reinforced by the costume choice, namely Titania’s Bélé inspired skirt and Oberon’s Pierrot Grenade-esque coat. Choreographer Mindy Giles is to be credited for the harmonious marriage of classic Shakespearean elements and Trinidad folk dance, resulting in a hybrid that pays homage to both.

But what is dance without music? This is where Musical Director Samatha Joseph shone, with the support of musicians: Mark De Leon, Naalah Phillips, Sean Singh and Shannon Balbosa. Opting to compose original pieces, the musical numbers followed in the same vein as the choreography. The harmonious weaving of African drums, titillating steelpan and  more traditional instruments such as the flute provided an additional element, which aided in world building. Fortifying the themes of magical realism and fantasy, this was undeniably successful. The inclusion of the steelpan also spoke to its versatility and range, holding its own against such a classic body of work. It was refreshing to experience our national instrument in this setting. One could not help but feel a sense of patriotism being invoked – something unquestionably symbolizing us, beyond the conventional realms of its everyday use.

Alas, “the course of [this production] never did run smooth.” As with any theatrical endeavor, one runs the risk of some elements missing the mark. One such element was a particular instance in which the fourth wall was broken as for a brief moment, the laborers were granted the power to frolic around the auditorium, prompting the audience. Not only did this interrupt the pacing of the production, it also broke the suspension of disbelief – a technique that is crucial to the genre of fantasy whereby one willingly ignores or suspends critical thinking in order to immerse themselves into a believable world. It was not successful in this instance due to the demographic in attendance; the production being attended largely by various bodies of secondary schools , with Shakespeare being part of the curriculum, the engagement required was simply not received.

Furthermore, Taylor capitalizes on the opportunity to create a multi-layered experience, by way of a theatrical technique often used by Shakespeare in his initial stagings – double casting. Oberon and Theseus, played by Emmanuel Ansolia, and Hippolyta and Titania played by Kasonia Nicholls resulted not only in propelling the theme of confusion, but amplified the subtext. The depiction of marital struggle, animosity and power existing in juxtaposing worlds: the mortal and magical. One can take it a step further, drawing on the parallel between the world of Shakespeare and present day Caribbean life. Though the language and setting differs, the fundamental human experiences remain the same. While at times the imaginary line between these characters was muddled, it was the brilliant acting that brought it back from the brink. Ansolia in particular, excelled as his command of the stage, coupled with his embodiment of the character, nuances of his body language and delivery of the dialogue highlighted his proficiency.

However, my biggest issue was the physical stage and the resulting problems with the sight lines. UWI’s LRC auditorium mirrors that of the classic proscenium stage with the added obstacle of short walls dividing the sections. On the main stage itself, the magical forest world was set, complete with mythical flora and greenery and the mortal world set on what would technically be the apron. This resulted in there being clear sight lines for the scenes in the forest but not those occurring in the mortal world. In theory it made sense to have the world of man literally exist with the audience and symbolically crossing the plane over into the fantastical by stepping onto the stage, yet, this fell short. It was disheartening to miss pockets of what would’ve otherwise been a successful theatrical and staging decision. 

Shakespeare’s exploration, examination and adaptation of universal themes and characters that serve as the backbone for his body of work, results in its timeless nature. It is material that is accessible through one’s lived experiences, regardless of language, culture or socio-educational background. It is the type of theatre that pushes boundaries while simultaneously capturing the essence and intricacies of human nature. Theatre that hits closer to home than we realize. With subtle changes and embellishments, Taylor pseudo-recontextualized the material, and allowed the audience to subconsciously draw parallels between classic literature and our Caribbean identity. In doing this, relevance and appreciation is cemented, but also raises a philosophical question and forces us to interrogate ourselves. We are presented with and probably accept Shakespeare as the benchmark for theatre, yet we see so many elements of our own identity comparable with his work. Why do we gravitate towards Shakespeare as being superior, to the denigration of our own?

It is irrefutable that Director Michailean Taylor has scratched the surface of a heightened plane of creative existence in the staging of DCFA’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” While the elements that existed worked for the most part, it at times felt restrained, which left me wondering what this production might look like if the envelope was pushed a bit further.


Hi! I’m Anil and I wear many hats: entrepreneur, digital story-teller, content creator and Casting Executive with the T&T Performing Arts Network to name a few. My fascination with written text and it’s evocative nature began as a teen, and eventually led me to pursue a B.A in Literature and Linguistics with a minor in Education at The University of the West Indies.

While I am a full time Cake Artist, the Arts will always be my first passion. I’ve been fortunate enough recently to delve into the magical realm of theatre and share my experiences with others. When I’m not grinding I’m often found on some adventure near or far, or tucked away in a cozy coffeeshop buried in a book, updating my blog – Knock About Trini, or trying to become a self taught badass polyglot.

More from Anil Singh

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