It’s the final night of the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The run has gone well – competently – but it has a different quality this evening. Perhaps it’s because of the particularly receptive audience, or the storm rumbling overhead; but whatever the reason, the play feels excitingly unpredictable to the actors. Not through a lack of preparation, but because, at this moment, they’ve forgotten they have their feet on a stage and scripted words in their mouths. The chaos of the scenes in the forest is no longer a cause of apprehension, but the electricity that charges every movement they make.
Simon/Lysander is light-headed. His skin is damp from the heat and his homemade tunic clings to his body. The world beyond the stage lights is murky and irrelevant. Next to him, Hermia and Helena fight. Their faces are distorted by distrust and anger. Suddenly, Hermia pushes Helena to the ground. They roll around the floor, slapping and pulling hair. Laughter ripples inwards from the dark. In front of Lysander, Ben/Demetrius is taunting him, hopping from one foot to another and darting back and forwards like a boxer. He pushes Lysander, who stumbles backwards; then grabs Demetrius by his arm. Their bodies press together and they can feel each other’s shuddering movements as they try to catch their breath; fingers bruise as they struggle to regain their balance.
For a moment, they’re still.
Then Demetrius pushes Lysander away. As Lysander falls back, his hand slides across Demetrius’ waist. Shaking, they turn to face one another.
Lysander: Now follow, if thou dar’st, to try whose right,
Of thine or mine, is most in Helena.
Demetrius: Follow? Nay, I’ll go with thee,
Cheek by jowl.”
Exeunt Lysander and Demetrius.
Simon feels intoxicated. Everything is clear and sharp as he and Ben duck behind the screens. The air is thick with heat and sweat pours down their faces as they crouch down, with less than a breath between them. They jostle together like naughty children and Simon rests his arm on Ben’s knee. Their faces are inches apart now. Simon has forgotten the drama on stage as he notices the flecks of green in Ben’s eyes, the small scar on his cheek and the freckles across the bridge of his nose. Ben closes his eyes and moves his hand to the back of Simon’s head. He pulls him towards him and they kiss. For Simon, the clamour of the play disappears completely. All that’s left is the shocking strangeness of someone else’s mouth on his and a sense of calm that washes everything else away.
Then, as Ben shifts, his costume catches on a nail and tears. The world comes rushing back and he pulls back, looking as though he’s been in a car accident. And Simon knows, without ever having to ask, that it’s finished – before it has even begun. From the other side of the screen, a line is repeated, loudly. It’s their cue.
Later, at the cast party, Simon sits in a corner and watches the brittle jollity that arises when a celebration also marks an ending. He watches people drink and eat too much, before they have to return to normality tomorrow. He recalls the denial in Ben’s eyes when, after the lovers have awoken to find that order has been restored to their lives, Demetrius says: “These things seem small and undistinguishable,/Like far-off mountains turned into clouds”. During the applause, Ben wouldn’t take his hand. Simon watches Ben now, his arm around Hermia, and wonders what he’s thinking. Quietly, he gets up and leaves.
Back at the theatre, all is quiet. The flashing security alarm is the only sign of life. In the moonlight, through the window, a trail of clothing is visible. Abandoned in haste, it suggests many things. The stage, however, is empty.