A Midsummer Night’s Dream
La Boite Theatre Co
February 11 – March 7 2015
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
“A wildly original take on Shakespeare’s magical romantic comedy.”
Alright. That may be, but I have a few questions about this one. Firstly…
Who killed Kenny?! PUCK?
So the faery servant is not altogether dead in this production, but he is actually mostly dead. Or, he is reborn as an alien who channels himself using the magic of television. Or whatever. We hear his voice – well, sort of; it sounds eerily similar to the evil voice in The Child, to which I’m currently listening – and we never actually see him. Oh sure, Oberon sees a version of him, but DOES HE EVEN REALLY EXIST? Who’s to say? Read it how you will; of course the absence of Puck will seem awesome and inspired to some, of course – of course! – but to me it smacks of too much cleverness. Why mess with A Midsummer Night’s Dream? I don’t believe Shakespeare’s characters need to be transported to a terribly different time and place in order to make the old stories relevant to new audiences, or whatever, unless you are Sam Mendes. (I do hope you’re keeping up with the NT Live screenings at a cinema near you because THAT is how we reinvent the classics, kids). #ntlive #nuffsaid
Where is the magic here?
Because the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is its magic.
Four awkward teens find themselves entangled in a god-awful love quadrangle. A sextet of amateur drama enthusiasts earnestly rehearse a play for a wedding. The Godfather and Godmother of the fairies are locked in a bitter argument over an adopted child, which they seek to resolve through the careless application of dodgy witchcraft.
In Benjamin Schostakowski’s brave reimagining the magic is almost entirely lost. Where are the faeries? Why must Titania speak to them (and for them) when they are clearly, according to this version, not really there? It seems she is going slightly mad! Or is it just me?! Why do we need to dream the Dream so differently? Other than making a mark as a director, putting one’s own stamp on it and all that stuff, why go to such lengths to pluck out and dispose of all of the gleaming, glistening, beautifully coloured tail feathers? As I know it, the Dream is a peacock, or Amazing Mayzie, but now we see it stripped (though not edited; it’s a long show!), and without the magic we are left with Gertrude McFuzz. Before medication. Poor Gertrude. (Sorry, Gertrude).
When we re-stage a classic, a well-loved text, we have to ask, “What’s the message now?” What do we want the audience to take away this time? Has this story changed? No. Have these characters changed? No. We still have lovers (and faeries and crazies) among us. In theory, the story and its characters can be thrown into any setting, but in practice does the (insert superlative here) conceptualisation continue to serve the story?
Having enjoyed intelligent conversations with so many people about so many productions over so many years I’m ready to hear the triumphant cries of “genius!” And “inspired!” (No doubt I missed most of them at the after party. It was late. There are roadworks every night. There is school every day, and there were four more fabulous shows to get to last week!). I’ve said the same, loudly, about A Tribute of Sorts. I loved it! But Schostakowski’s “wildly original take” on A Midsummer Night’s Dream has missed the mark, despite its moments of inspired genius. Do you know what I love most about this production? That it happened. That Chris Kohn had scheduled it, that Todd Macdonald & co have supported it, that everybody involved was up for something new, exciting and daring and IT HAPPENED.
BUT THERE IS NO PUCK! FOR PUCK’S SAKE!
I had high expectations, which prevailed upon sighting Dann Barber’s beautiful, cluttered set (everything brought onto stage stays on stage); it’s an interior not unlike the country house in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (or what the Year 7 drama students might imagine Darkwood House to look like), with a great, grand central staircase and incredible detail in the dressing of the space, right down to the carpet on the stairs, the suitably slightly garish wallpaper, and the props placed on shelves and side tables, creating an old fashioned feeling of the typical homely, cosy, hoarder’s precious mess. It doesn’t strike me as particularly Australian but, y’know, whatever.
More importantly, why is there no beauty in it? My initial intrigue turns to dismay when nothing more than the obvious is done: the house is a house is a house. Another missed opportunity perhaps as far as lighting states go (although the next night, at Sex With Strangers, I spoke with Lighting Designer, Jason Glenwright, about it and he didn’t seem to mind in the least), when we have no magical dappled forest lighting. It’s. A. House. I think sometimes the obvious choices annoy me. We see no subtlety, no subtext; everything is exactly as it seems. Except in the acting choices, and perhaps as the lamps flicker… More of that kind of magic too, please!
The Mechanicals are another example. They come this close to bringing the house down with their silly antics and sure, they’re funny, but they should in fact be so excruciatingly bad that they become holding-your-belly-hilarious. The performances within The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe are actually fine. Oh, but wait! The most delicious, wicked, tongue-in-cheek comedy comes with the actors’ focus exercises and warm ups! The focus exercise gets me every time, each one a masterclass in comic timing and the magic of a good ensemble. Absolutely hysterical! HA! #sittingacrossfromseanmeelaughing #comedygold
It’s a reduced cast, boiled down to six instead of the usual twenty or so, and it’s an inspired (and economically sound) idea that doesn’t quite work. We wait, old-school high school musical scene-change style, for costume changes. Despite being mostly hilarious, and winning over the majority of the opening night audience with his vocal and physical work, Kieran Law’s Lysander, Bottom, Pyramus and the ass are too similar. (For the uninitiated, the latter refers to the donkey he becomes when Bottom is transformed by Puck’s magic spell). And can I say; what a missed opportunity it is to just die! “I die. I die. I die.” And he does. Sigh. Sometimes I wonder how much is the director’s choice, and how much is left to the actor’s discretion? I wonder again as Pacharo Mzembe (Demetrius) runs and leaps about the space shirtless and shining with sweat, months before he will return to this stage in Prize Fighter…is it not yet selling well? Now it will! You know I have no problem with admiring a well maintained male (or female) form on stage (or screen) but what should have been completely natural, joyous and boisterous reeked of a marketing stunt akin to an etsy crafter friend taking advantage of Ryan Gosling’s memeness to self-promote in your newsfeed. #yesmemenessisawordnow #heygirl
There are plenty of lovely moments, to which Law and Mzembe contribute, and the girls are great. There is much to enjoy. After the show, when I wonder aloud at my simultaneous delight and frustration with the four of them, despite mostly gorgeous performances, Julia reminds me, “You have to be in love with the lovers!” OH YES. (Am I? Am I in love with the lovers? Perhaps I would be by the end of the season).
Well, if you LOVE Kathryn Marquet you’ll LOVE her sighing, gasping, whimpering, wailing, plain ol’ little Hermia. I loved her Snug, and for what purpose its interpretation I cannot tell you, but I LOVED Marquet’s delivery of what becomes a Slide (Sydney) worthy performance poetry piece (think Maureen in Over the Moon). The interpretive dance, which opens the play within the play? Not so much (Choreographer Neridah Waters). I’m glad many on opening night enjoyed the sequence – it feels like a fond, funny throwback to A Tribute of Sorts – but like so many aspects of the production it’s a token gesture, and perhaps that’s the point. #tryeverythingonce
Speaking of A Tribute of Sorts, of the four lovers, Emily Burton is the standout. Her Helena makes the most sense in this context, and her performance keeps me captivated. Burton has been offered here, like everyone else, a couple of very OTT moments but she’s the only one who manages to make each one completely plausible. Her facial expressions make this Helena more animated than perhaps you’ve seen before, and the effect – she – is beautiful.
Christen O’Leary, as you will know if you’re a regular here, is one of my favourite physical performers. She has a voice, yes, and as Hippolyta, she uses it effortlessly to command and cajole. We won’t mention the Helen Howardesque hair. (Why is it we are still all having so much trouble finding perfect wigs for productions? Huh? Please send help!) Anyway, sans wig, as Titania O’Leary flits and flirts and seduces her way around the space like a proper nymph, and I expect more to come of her relationship with Bottom as the ass. There is nothing more yet. It feels, so early in the season, as if they are holding back, being very careful in that bathtub! Somebody send them to Wicked for research! (N.B. There are no complete clips of Steve & Jemma yet, sorry). Anyway, she talks with faeries that are not there and voices their few lines, as I’ve said, creating what comes across as a slightly mad Ophelia vibe. Again, this may have been the vibe we were going for! WHO’S TO SAY? #theresrosemarythatsforremembrance
We also enjoy a strong, sure performance from Brian Lipson (Theseus & Oberon), and in both his guises he reminds me of somebody…ah! That’s it! #teamgilfedder
There are many who will very loudly, quite rightly adore this production, and thank goodness, because we know from past experience that in the meantime, the critics of the critics will only talk about how wildly I’ve missed the point. Maybe so. But there is something lost in translation here, which cannot be glossed over by a sparkly press release or an over zealous, super supportive review in praise of originality, the rise and rise of the indie theatre makers and the need to support them, and the desire to seduce the next generation, and yet… #stageitandtheywillcome
This truly new take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream gives us lots to talk about, and lots to look forward to because it’s clear Schostakowski has a gift. We see its promise, its glimmer, like the Arkanstone tumbling away through the masses of superfluous, distractifying treasure (#sorrynotsorry #ozspeak), and what I’d love to see again now is the return of the trust in the work; a return to the simple magic of theatre, without having to prove a thing, whatever that thing might be.
This Dream might be your thing. Find out!
Images by Dylan Evans