Reviews, Stage, Theatre

A Midsummer Night’s Dream review (Sydney Opera House)

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream tends to come with a gloss of frivolity — four young Athenians romp about the woods, falling in and out of love with one another as a kingdom of fairies meddle in their relationships. A fairy queen is put under a humiliating spell by her husband, forcing her to fall in love with a half-man, half-donkey, and a group of bumbling, uneducated labourers attempt to rehearse a play.

But if you start questioning the major events in this play, the horrific manipulation employed by some of the characters, and the way that tends to be treated by directors, it becomes a little bit more difficult to accept as a joyous piece of comedy.

What happens to the characters is terrifying. Wondrous, but terrifying.

And those are the perfect words to describe Sydney Theatre Company interim artistic director Kip Williams’ bold and occasionally mystifying production. The world of Athens — from which the lovers escape — is a dystopian vision of a place where power destroys identity, and keeps young people and women shackled. The Duke’s men all wear plain black hoods, concealing their faces, while the women wear white wedding dresses, their faces covered in veils. Everything is tightly wound, black and white, and finely ordered.

By contrast, the world of the woods is filled with strange wild creatures in nude bodysuits, each with their own idiosyncratic flashes of colour and appendages. The chaos is overseen by the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon (Robert Menzies) and Titania (Paula Arundell), resplendent in gold, channelling a Donna Summer-esque disco queen. The woods are an orgiastic place, not too far from a Berlin sex club, crossed with an eclectic range of visual cues.

How do the simple mechanicals and naive lovers find their way through this unfamiliar and overtly brutal, sexual world? That seems to be Williams’ central question.

Puck, played by a mischievous and wonderful Matthew Backer in black stockings and sequinned hot pants, acts as a kind of emcee, welcoming the audience into the woods.

It’s all as dark as you can possibly imagine the play could be, so thankfully the mechanicals are laugh-out-loud funny — their staging of Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play, is an absolute riot of incompetence and failed spectacle.

Alice Babidge’s costumes, Robert Cousins’ set, and Damien Cooper’s lighting all have their own personalities, but come together to create something visually striking. Chris Williams has composed some brilliantly unsettling music, and Nate Edmondson’s sound design amplifies the dialogue smartly, melding the words into a pulsing soundscape.

This is a production which is constantly engaging and intriguing, inviting you to lean forward and wonder what the company might pull out next. There are scenes in which Williams’ goal of uncovering the darker side of this play doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with Shakespeare’s comedic style — particularly in the third act, when the four lovers are literally tumbling and fumbling over one another.

By contrast, the scenes between Titania and Bottom (Josh McConville) land with full force, thanks to a copious amount of blood and excellent performances by Paula Arundell, who balances the dark comedy and full horror of the situation, and Josh McConville, whose ego and cluelessness makes for a very funny and surprisingly subtle take on the character.

There are strong performances from all. The four lovers, Brandon McClelland (Demetrius), Honey Debelle (Helena), Rob Collins (Lysander), and Rose Riley (Hermia) all find the requisite fish-out-of-water sense of wonder, while the mechanicals, led by Susan Prior as a fantastic, enterprising and practical Peter Quince, feel just as real as they are hilarious. Jay James-Moody has a particularly memorable turn as Francis Flute, the young man tasked with playing the young maiden Thisbe.

There are enough moments of absolute magic, both from the performances and Williams’ sense of showmanship, to keep the audience entertained, and force them to reconsider this very familiar work.

At the end of the play, all of the conflicts seem to have been resolved, and the characters can go off happily into the rest of their lives under the natural order. But is that even possible, given all they’ve seen and experienced? (And given one of the four lovers is still under an all-encompassing love spell?)

Williams doesn’t let any of us off the hook that easily — the primal, wild and hedonistic side of these characters can only be suppressed to a certain point.

[box]A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until October 22.

Featured image: Josh McConville, photo by Brett Boardman[/box]

3 responses to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. I don’t think this production was very sure about where it was going. The performances were uneven, particularly with the Pyramus and Thisbe crowd, with some of the cast being inaudible at times. The tragedy of Bottom was captured well but I think it was lost on the audience. I don’t necessarily like my Shakespeare “straight” but I do like it to have cohesion which this production lacked.

  2. I ejoyed the play thorougly. It is a remarcable modern production which I haven’t seen in years .. The critic forgot to add the fine humor. Maybe they should play it in Europe to get a proper public appreciation.

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