It goeth thus: Shakespeare’s most noted amateur thespians, the rude mechanicals, gather to rehearse A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe. Should they be able to rise above their lowly station and general incompetence, their play will form part of an evening of entertainment for the newly married royal couple.
But, naturally, things start to go awry for our humble players, leading man Bottom (Charles Mayer) seemingly transforming into an ass-like monster during a forest rehearsal and thereafter disappearing without trace.
His ring in is Mowldie (also Mayer), an alcoholic ham whose heyday is long behind him. Disaster and shame beckon for the cast of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe as talk turns to performing ‘that’ instead, an entertainment so unthinkable it can’t even be named (and which I won’t spoil by attempting to describe here, much as it pains me to not be able to devote a substantial portion of this review to unpacking its magnificent awfulness). As with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the play’s conceit is derived from what is never seen but can only be imagined of Shakespeare’s incidental characters.
Written by Keith Robinson and Tony Taylor in the 1980s, and premiering at Belvoir Street with direction by Geoffrey Rush in 1987, The Popular Mechanicals occupies a lovingly observed chink in recent Australian theatre history. It’s only been sporadically performed since then — far less often, in any case, than Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfields’ The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a similarly irreverent take on the Bard that premiered in Edinburgh in the same year – but this production, under Sarah Gile’s astute direction, should cement its reputation as a classic.
Jonathan Oxlade’s design locates the audience — the real ‘monster in the dark’ according to the show’s rambunctious opening number — in a fusty, parquet-floored rehearsal room bedecked with plastic chairs and an old drum kit bearing the punning legend ‘The Ruff Stuff’. This is where, according to the narrator, the mechanicals are able to ‘leave the turgid drudgery of their lives at the door — and there’s an urn’. As in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, many of the jokes are pitched at those who know this unglamorous, unseen world intimately — and, no doubt, the Shakespearean canon — but The Popular Mechanicals would be a bore if it only appealed to insiders.
In fact, one of the reasons the show is so enjoyable is because it does more than it says on the tin, ransacking not only Shakespeare but also the gamut of popular comedy from vaudeville to farce, pantomime to stand up.
Its cod-Shakespearian dialogue — especially here in the mouth of superb straight man Rory Walker as Peter Quince, director of the mechanicals — is deliciously witty but there are as many sight gags as rhythmical ones, as many fart jokes as there are allusions to Shakespeare and Tudor history. ‘And now for something completely irrelevant,’ the narrator intones at one point, as if there was any doubt left that the show shares much with Monty Python’s penchant for mashing up the high- and low-brow as if such labels had never meant a thing. Helped along by a handful of judicious updates, it all feels, 25 years after its première, fresh as a daisy.
Kitted out in doublets and ruffs, the cast excel. Amber McMahon and Lori Bell, the latter more familiar to Adelaide audiences as a stand up comic, take evident delight in their gender-subverting roles as Snug and Tom Snout. Julie Forsyth is a scream as Robin Starveling, the mechanical’s helium-voiced seamstress and a delightful moon in the play-within-a-play. Tim Overton, reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder with bowl haircut and unending facial gymnastics, is equally good. Mayer’s flamboyant actors are freighted with just the right amounts of pomposity and self-delusion.
I hesitate to mention just one excellent piece of comic business in a review of a show that contains an embarrassment of them, but it would be remiss of me not to tip my hat to Mayer’s feat of wine cask demolishment — an event that summed up the spirit of the evening, and given an unrepeatable punch line on opening night by an audience member who, momentarily forgetting himself, yelled ‘go the goon!’ It’s that kind of night.