Esalan Gates introduces her audio drama, ‘The Lovers’, for Durham Drama Festival 2021, exploring the psychological scarring and transformed comedic landscape that comes with filling in the gaps to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. 

I’ve always been interested in what isn’t said in a play. If you read a script, you won’t notice if a character hasn’t spoken for a while, whereas the experience of watching a production in the moment means that the presence of that silent character onstage will be painfully obvious. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always held an element of this intrigue for me, as there are many details that are left unspoken. If Demetrius and Helena were originally together, why did they fall apart? Was it recent? What were Lysander and Hermia planning on doing once they arrived at wherever they were going? How do the lovers overcome the psychological trauma of what they undergo in the forest? Do they have any idea what happened to them that night? I was curious to find out what is revealed when we realise how much we don’t know, so I wrote ‘The Lovers’.  

Writer and director, Esalan Gates.

As most audiences are familiar with the original play, I wanted to choreograph solo pieces of physical theatre to allude to what is really going on rather than stating it outright; if the audience are not anticipating the reveal of what is actually happening, the tension must be built through the lovers’ fear and desperation as a result of their own ignorance. In the same way that a lot of the original play’s hilarity comes from dramatic irony, the tension in ‘The Lovers’ is borne from the fact that we must bear witness to something awful that we can’t stop, even though we know what is going to happen.

With Covid-19 guidelines for The Assembly Rooms in mind, I became fascinated by the idea of what happens when movement is restricted onstage and actors can’t touch one another. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most sensual Shakespeare productions, so I wanted to explore how meaning can be imbued in the smallest movement. When the two male characters are essentially drugged and become predators, how much threat and fear can a single step forward come to instil? This play is an exploration of the reality of love and control, and how that acts as a parallel to the interaction of class with our perception of our own power.

Another response to the likelihood of Covid-19 guidelines remaining in place for early 2021 was to keep props and set to the absolute minimum, focusing instead on lighting and audio. This turned out to be a real blessing when Epiphany term was put entirely online; there are very few moments in the play that needed adapting for radio. As this is a dark interpretation of the original play, I wanted to explore this literally through stage lighting as the tension escalates throughout the piece. There were moments of physical theatre to indicate Demetrius and Lysander’s drugging, which are now indicated through distorted audio, composed of lines spoken elsewhere in the play to assert the thematic relevance of the imagery of gold, the reality of love, and the idea of control. I was enthusiastic about the effect this experimentation with technology could have on the audience during these ominous moments, so I carried this across into a radio play format.

The Lovers explores all of my favourite aspects of stage plays: audience accountability, foreshadowing through imagery, uncomfortable realisations, and a strong core cast. Now that it is taking the form of a radio play, I am even more grateful for all of these aspects; if I have to trade stark visuals for immersive soundscapes, I’ll take that.

The Lovers premieres at 2pm on 6th February 2021, and is available to stream on the Durham Student Theatre Youtube channel.