Friendly fairies frolic in fantastical Freewill festival

GigCity Edmonton Freewill Shakespeare FestivalIt weren’t for Shakespeare, Disney would look a lot different today. No Tinkerbell!

Before the great playwright first produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1660, fairies were evil. They put death spells on people, stole their babies, spread disease, imparted loose morals upon comely maidens. In general, fairies were unpleasant manifestations of the public fear and intolerance towards Paganism. At the time Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy was written, you could get burned at the stake for heresy.

Playing through July 21 at Hawrelak Park’s Heritage Amphitheatre alternating nights with King Lear for the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to have been the first major cultural shift that painted faeries as benevolent spirits.

“Shakespeare made fairies much more mischievous and fun,” says Freewill artistic director Marianne Copithorne. “Oberon and Titania arrive in the forest because they want to attend the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. They’re friendly. They just like to cause a little shit.”

A little explanation is clearly needed. Oberon and Titania are king and queen of the fairies, respectively. They live in the forest with all the other friendly fairies, where the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta will take place, and where the young lovers Hermia and Lysander have eloped, followed by Demetrius, who had been planning to marry Hermia, and Helena, who secretly loves Demetrius. The in-laws don’t make any of this easier, nor does Puck, the fairy king’s wise-cracking servant. It’s a full moon, too.

“It’s just a perfect storm where all these people and spirits come together at the same time. Shakespeare puts them in a great big blender and causes chaos,” Copithorne says.

King Lear: Parental discretion is advised

King Lear: Parental discretion is advised

Some called the play “ridiculous” when it came out. And it still might be a good way to describe it all these years later. This is clearly Shakespeare’s weirdest and wildest play, made a little more of both in treating it as a farce in Freewill’s production. As Copithorne says, in celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary, “I wanted to give the audience a big cotton candy ice cream cone for our celebration of the 25th, so there’s lots of colour and it’s a delight to watch, and it’s a real stark contrast to see the darkness of King Lear.”

Where a guy gets his eyes scooped out with a spoon. So hey, parental discretion advisory.

Alternating between tragedy and comedy has served this company well, Copithorne says, which works especially well outdoors because “They were designed to be performed outdoors. There’s special kind of magic when you see Shakespeare in the outdoors when Mother Nature conspires to create beautiful sunset as the backdrop of a comedy or a thunderstorm to go with a tragedy.”

As long as it’s not the other way around.