Wild Time by Rose Biggin and Keir Cooper is a bold and often outrageous reimagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s so much to explore in this book that we invited one of the authors along to introduce it! Read on as we reclaim sex as a consensual act, visit the idea of “remything”, and wander through a universe where love stories are played out on a cosmic scale.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s more memorable and fantastical plays. Why did you want to revisit it?
To be as bold as possible. It’s one of the most performed plays in the world, the most performed Shakespeare in the world — we wanted to make some work about authority and culture and sexual politics and theatre and make massive and sometimes subtle amendments as our own artistic offering. We thought “we go big or go home”.
As it’s such a known text you can really have fun ringing the changes. A lot of the joy of building the novel was in extrapolating wildly from clues in the text. The action in the play is framed by the notion that Theseus, Duke of Athens (of Minotaur-myth fame) is about to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, who the play describes as a prisoner of war, but outside of Dream and in culture she also has her own myths that are better — so we remythed her as a victor in our plot. Now, that match of Theseus and Hippoylta sounded like a pretty high-profile event to us. So, if this world is ancient Athens, and gods and heroes reside, surely they’d all be invited to this incredible wedding? Suddenly we have a massive event to play with that frames our version of the story.
The other thing the mythic backdrop gives you is a much bigger playground in terms of form/genre: such a setting meant we’d gone beyond retelling a classic story and into the realm of retelling myth. And once that’s where you are, all bets are off. When you retell myth you can change anything you want, that’s what retelling a myth is about. That’s what myth is for.
You introduce a metafictional element by having a play within a play. Is this one of theatre’s strengths? Does the theatrical form have an innate ability to support multiple narratives?
I’m not sure it’s a particular strength of theatre per se, as you get interior stories-within-stories across so many forms of literature: maybe it has something to do with the expectation of how much time and attention you are providing/shaping for your audience.
In Wild Time we play quite a few games with interior/exterior story. We use space and scale; the edges of the universe are a cognitive part of this story, all the way down to enlivened subatomic particles. But the ‘Play Within a Play’ the Mechanicals are performing (with Bottom in the lead role) we reintroduce as Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller — one of the most regarded 20th century dramas, very serious, a white middle-aged man having the appropriate crisis for his demographic. We turn it into a parody in the same way Shakespeare’s Pyramus and Thisbe is a burlesque of a known myth. We wanted our Mechanicals to be performing their/our equivalent to P&T — an important, high stakes drama for the time.
So we have a foot in Salesman, another foot in the main Wild Time world, and both feet are wearing the boots of Dream — carefully creating scenes and chapters that slides the reader’s attention between all of these fun viewpoints.
Having said ALL that, the bit of Wild Time that we really think of as the play within the play, is the book within the book — the fact that there’s a great sweeping space opera, tucked alongside the main narrative! This came about because the traditional story of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream never particularly interested us (everyone is jealous of everyone else, it is heavily plotty and does anyone particularly care who’s who?) and we were always waiting for the colourful story to kick off again with the fairies. So the challenge was to write something more interesting and dynamic than a kingdom of magic sex fairies for that chunk of the story, hence the fabric of space and time in their cosmic drama.
Are sexual power dynamics part of a broader discourse about gender roles and stereotypes? What does Wild Time bring to this discussion?
Yeah, gender roles seem tied up with power — so patriarchy is fearful of transgression from anything other than cishet-male ownership and domination. This is why certain expressions of sexual power disrupt this, lifestyle choices outside of monogamy etc disrupt this. Trans politics, all intersectionality really presents a threat to the power structures of cisheteropatriarchy, and sexual politics is at the heart of how such needs/ideas etc. are expressed.
The famous central image of Dream of course is the Queen of the Fairies tricked into falling in love with an ass by her jealous husband. We change that to become something consensual and hot and the rest of the novel comes from extrapolating outwards: what are the (artistic; political; world-building) consequences of this change?
So, Wild Time riffs on Shakespeare’s central conceit of these fairies who wield power over the natural-world ecsasies of sex and love. Like many gods, they behave like humans, with their own needs and foibles. The sex politics of the play are about jealousy, confusion, ownership, coercion and desire — questions relating to the idea of women’s agency were being discussed at the time Shakespeare was writing, and you can read the play as a response to that…
[HISTORY CORNER: The 1590s were a time of interest in the legislation around sexual assault. In 1597 a statute change classified abduction as a separate crime from rape; before that, both acts were legally considered to be basically the same offence, i.e. the crime of taking a man’s property, whether that’s the husband or the father. This statute change is a shift towards recognising women’s own agency in all this, because lack of consent becomes an offence against the woman herself, not the nearest man. Changes in the law don’t happen in a vacuum, this was being thought about, discussed, argued over; so, we know this issue was in the air while Shakespeare wrote Dream. Legal issues were big debates in the theatre community — the Inns of Court provided a lot of the theatregoing audience (and a few playwrights, but never mind them right now). END OF HISTORY CORNER.]
Shakespeare’s text is exploring sexual agency. So if he is, we can.
…So, taking the broadest conceit of ‘Sex Gods who run the gaff,’ what’s our version of a comedy with this theme? Instead of using jealousy and mixups to make the comedy, and drugging wives for sexual revenge, let us find humour in the gap between what happens in the play and what we make happen, and let us keep the sex hot, and consensual, and not centre around the uglier aspects. Sure, humans experience these feelings and actions — we’re not denying this, but it’s our damn story now, and we create our drama and comedy from things that we want to focus in on. Neither Dream nor Wild Time claim to be a complete set of answers on the full nature of sex — but we’re focussing the gaze where we want it.
A big big challenge of the writing was keeping the broad plot points of the original text, while challenging the bits we felt we needed to, and still coming out with a story that felt like an adaptation, not a totally unrecognisable piece with the same character names. If you know Dream it’s always there in the background. Of course, once the plot is sorted, there’s huge worlds between the two.
In addition to writing, you are also a pole dancer and actor. How do these disciplines intersect in your work?
Being somewhat familiar with performance informs writing about theatre, in the sense that I can use language and scenarios that ought to read well, or at least to be familiar. They’re also forms that are very interested in gender and sexual expression, and the line between sexuality and art and charisma, what’s real and what’s performance, and why might someone perform it… etc.
While I’m talking about lines of my work that cross, one more to throw in! I’m also a theatre academic, my PhD was in theories of immersive performance and I wrote a book about narratives and audience participation in the work of Punchdrunk — so I find myself thinking *about* theatre and performance a lot. Theorising this stuff comes into my writing both in fiction and as an actor/theatremaker in oblique ways, in that I’m often very interested in thinking about form: I’m interested in the culture of charisma, gender, ambition, power, the history of celebrity, the politics of form… Wild Time is very much a novel about theatre in multiple ways, beyond the obvious one.
Pitch us Wild Time! Why should a reader pick up the book?
We’ve said that in terms of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this book is for the lovers and haters in pretty much equal measure — there’s plenty in there wherever you sit.
If you like the derring-do of Jojo Rabbit and the feminist trope magic of Angela Carter, you’ll probably enjoy the book. It’s for people who enjoy brassy choices with history and myth, if you like comedy as a power tool, it’s for fans of erotic content, fans of literary content, fans of cult classics like the Rocky Horror Picture show; we’re queering the canon and inviting laughter as we do it.
It has a huge cast: fun-loving Fairies, outrageous Greek Gods and Sex Gods, a horde of rampaging Amazons, multi-talented Changelings, a group in various local trades with an artistic vision, a splash of timetravel, a wholesome farm that’d make Constable blush, a verdant hedge maze and the mysteries within, and even the very fabric of the universe plays out its drama on an astronomical scale.
Rose Biggin is a writer and theatre artist. Her short fiction has been published by Jurassic London, Constable Robinson and Abaddon Books, and made the recommended reading list for Best of British Fantasy 2019 (NewCon Press). Her joint theatrework BADASS GRAMMAR: A Pole/Guitar Composition in Exploded View premiered at The Yard Theatre, toured nationally, and was selected for Experimentica international live art festival.
She has been a Miss Pole Dance UK finalist and developed her practice with support from Jerwood Arts. Her PhD in theories of immersive performance was a Collaborative Doctoral Award supported by the theatre company Punchdrunk; her book Immersive Theatre and Audience Experience is published by Palgrave Macmillan.