Shakespeare In Visual Culture: Titania Awakes

Shakespeare in Visual Culture: Titania Awakes – curious arts

It’s interesting how two different art forms, painting and theatre, can create distinctive experiences when they interpret the same material.

Take the painting Titania Awakes, Surrounded by Attendant Fairies (1793-1794) by the 18th century Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. The characters Fuseli represents are based on William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His visual interpretation of Shakespeare’s play presents us with a fantasy world where rules of logic and proportion play no part.

Henry Fuseli. Titania Awakes, Surrounded by Attendant Fairies (1793-1794).

Henry Fuseli. Titania Awakes, Surrounded by Attendant Fairies (1793-1794).

This painting by Fuseli is peculiar because it doesn’t visually make sense. The figures in the image follow no logical scale as they overlap each other, defying gravity with their whimsical poses. Even the two women in the background on the left side of the image appear confused, as if they wandered into a bizarre scene from a societal garden party and are now overcome by a magical trance.

In front of the two women are Titania and Bottom; Titania is caressing Bottom’s jewel adorned head as fairies dance and play music around them. Titania, the queen of fairies, has been tricked into smelling a love potion during her sleep and awakened to find herself irrationally infatuated with Bottom, a mortal whose human head is transformed into a donkey’s head.

As we look closer at the image, we notice the small details that Fuseli has incorporated to create the illusion that we are looking at magic. One of the women in the background on the left side of the image has an odd expression on her face; her eyes appear glazed over and she holds two fingers up in the air, as if gesturing to a figure only she can see. The woman next to her has her eyes closed and her arms crossed over her waist. She is inhaling the fairies’ intoxicating sounds as they lure her deeper into the forest.

Detail. Henry Fuseli. Titania Awakes, Surrounded by Attendant Fairies.

Detail. Henry Fuseli. Titania Awakes, Surrounded by Attendant Fairies.

Fuseli’s painting may not make sense, but looking closely at the characters he depicts brings the painting’s easily unnoticed idiosyncrasies to life. The same is true when watching the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream come to life on the stage. The University of Alberta’s Department of Drama is currently showing the play at the Timms Centre on campus until Feb. 13, 2016.

While I watched the performers on stage, I noticed how small bits of humour and meaning could go unnoticed if you didn’t pay close attention to the actor’s bodily movements and facial expressions. The actors’ ability at infusing comedy into their behavior left the audience roaring with laughter throughout the play.

Natasha Napoleao as Titania in A Midsummer Night

Natasha Napoleao as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Feb 2016. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Whether it’s confusion when looking at Fuseli’s painting or laughter provoked from the University of Alberta’s actors, it’s the fine details that the artists inject into their work that bring Shakespeare’s words to life.

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Dates: Nightly at 7:30 p.m. until Feb. 13, 2016
Matinee Thursday, Feb. 11  at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior available online now at TIX on the Square and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

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