A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play of four young lovers being caught up in a world of fairies and magic, and for hundreds of years has been adored by many.
With a new twist, a straight female character Helena is played by a gay man, now Helenus.
Quick summary: Lysander and Hermia are lovers, but Hermia’s powerful father wants her to marry Demetrius. Helenus is in love with Demetrius. All flee to the forest, where Oberon, the king of the fairies, puts Lysander and Demetrius under a spell so they pronounce their love to Helenus. He also puts a spell on the queen of the fairies, Titania, to fall in love with Bottom, an actor who’s head he’s transformed into an ass. It all works out in the end.
Gay Star News chatted to Ankur Bahl, the gay actor who is playing Helenus about what changes to the script needed to be made as well as the uncomfortable nature that some could believe a ‘straight’ character, Demetrius, is put under a spell to be turned gay and is left that way.
Brought up by Indian immigrants in the United States, he spent his childhood in San Jose, California. After travelling the world training in ballet and contemporary dance, he settled in London. His first piece with DV8 was ‘To Be Straight With You’, examining the relationship of gay men with religious communities in England. This launched his career.
After working with new Shakespeare Globe director Emma Rice in 2013, she reached out to Ankur as she knew she wanted a gay man to play Helenus in her gender-balanced production with several BME actors. They found out in a meeting that they virtually didn’t need to change the script at all, apart from the pronouns from she to he.
It comes as BBC’s television production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by Russell T Davies, will include a lesbian kiss.
What do you imagine happened prior to the play starting? There’s a lot of clues in the text. In the first scene, Lysander tells the entire court that Demetrius is in love with Helenus. So it’s clear they had some sort of relationship before. The text tells you they have a history. That was our starting point. There’s a deep love there but then all of a sudden Demetrius abandons that love to pursue Hermia and Helenus is left heartbroken. In terms of that relationship, they had been together at least long enough to fall deeply in love.
Do you consider this to be a story of a gay guy in love with a bisexual guy, or a gay guy who is love with a gay guy in the closet?
That question is open to interpretation. I know Helenus is a gay man. Demetrius is interesting. I think Demetrius’ sexuality is more fluid than the binary. He is in love with Helenus, he is open to gay love, but he is also presented with the opportunity of a socially acceptable marriage to Hermia.
It’s the closet.
It is, it is in someway. I think there’s a grey area in our production in that Demetrius could fall in love with Hermia if he hadn’t already fallen in love with Helenus. There is an element of closeting, but depending on whether that closeting is about the denial of self or not during the play or not is up for grabs. That’s an important conversation to have. Demetrius does say at the end of the play that loving Helenus he’s returned to his ‘natural taste’. Now that natural taste could be about being gay or it could mean about the fact that they’re in love. I think that’s exciting because it resonates because there are so many people are like that. It explains why Helenus wants the love so badly, because he wants Demetrius to forget about labels, forget about society and admit their love is real and they can be happy.
Let’s talk about the magic spell. In plenty of productions, that’s obviously played for laughs when Demetrius and Lysander fall in love with Helena, in this production Helenus. How is that scene going to be interpreted?
It’s going to be interpreted the same way. That’s what Shakespeare has written. In the previous scene, Demetrius is threatening Helenus. He threatens him with physical violence. The next time we see them he is professing his love. That would be quite unbelievable for anybody, gay or straight. It’s all the more heartbreaking for Helenus because he’s sitting there, seeing his love at one point threatening him and the next loving him and it’s just unbelievable.
At the same time when Demetrius is there, Lysander wakes up who is ostensibly straight all of a sudden is professing his love. And that is what leads Helenus to believe the two are playing a game with him. In some ways, it feels like gay bashing. There is an element of victimising me because I’m gay. It’s all the more compelling and heartbreaking.
In terms of where the play is left, Demetrius is still under the spell. Are audiences going to be confused and assume a ‘straight’ character has been ‘turned gay’?
This is a really important question, and the answer involves a reading of the text. When Oberon puts Lysander and Titania under spells, the spells he puts them under they will fall in love with the next thing they see. For Lysander that’s Helenus, for Titania that’s an ass, Bottom. Demetrius’ spell is different, because Oberon has seen his spell on other people. He does a different spell on Demetrius. Oberon says: ‘Flower of this purple dye, hit with Cupid’s archery, sink in apple of his eye. When his love he doth espy, let her shine as gloriously as the Venus of the sky.’
So what Oberon is specifically doing is when you see your love, I want you to see your love with the true eyes of your own love. Oberon is putting Demetrius under a truth spell. He’s not putting him under a spell that changes what he thinks. What he is doing is, something some of my best allies have done in my life, has gone, ‘Recognize yourself and embrace it. Most gay men have had something in their lives have had that.
Why are you hoping people come to this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
The special thing about this production is Shakespeare can be perceived as being really difficult to access and a little bit old-fashioned. And I think our production shows the way Shakespeare talks about love is in fact universal and that can apply to all forms of love we talk about in contemporary society. That’s exciting. Also, the production is super sexy, super dark, it’s going to be a riot. This play is going to usher in a new era at the Globe, and that’s exciting as well. The Globe has done incredible work in the time it has been open, but each new director brings in a new vision and it’s very much making a bold statement about where she’s taking this company.
Shakespeare writes about love in a way that’s so universal, it resonates with a gay storyline without having to shoe-horn it into something it’s not. Oberon’s spell does not turn a straight man gay. Oberon’s spell just allows Demetrius to recognize and celebrate his true love. If you miss that, then I think you read and see the place for that it’s not. That’s what is important about this play.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe will run from now until 11 September.