Monday, October 3, 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Photo by Hon Boey

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House, September 12 – October 22, 2016.

Directed by Kip Williams.
Designers: Set by Robert Cousins; Costume by Alice Babidge; Lighting by Damien Cooper; Composer – Chris Williams; Sound by Nate Edmondson.

Cast: Paula Arundell (Hippolyta/Titania); Matthew Backer (Puck); Rob Collins (Lysander); Honey Debelle (Helena); Emma Harvie (Robin Starveling/Cobweb); Jay James-Moody (Francis Flute/Peaseblossom); Brandon McClelland (Demetrius); Josh McConville (Nick Bottom); Robert Menzies (Theseus/Oberon); Susan Prior (Peter Quince); Rose Riley (Hermia); Rahel Romahn (Snug/Moth); Bruce Spence (Egeus/Tom Snout/Mustard Seed).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 1

Kip Williams, I’m sure, decided that anything Eddie Perfect could do, Kip could do perfecter.  If you thought as I did (on this blog 31st July 2016) that The Beast had the most extraordinarily funny ending to a first half ever, then Titania and Bottom (note the double meanings) are well up to the same mark in this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Just bloody brilliant!  Literally.  Where Eddie had his cast totally bloodied before interval, Kip left us at that point with the Queen of the Fairies having a sexual encounter of a very interesting kind with the Bottom of an Ass, and saved the massive blood spatter for the deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe, creating the funniest ‘tragical comedy’ I could imagine.

On the serious side of critical commentary, this production makes clear – perhaps for the first time in several centuries (like the four since Shakespeare died) – why this unlikely story of sensible, tolerant government in the face of extreme authoritarianism remains a regular in the theatrical canon.  Shakespeare artfully parallels three tragical comedies:

     the egregious Egeus’ demand that he has absolute right over his daughter’s decision about who she loves and will marry in a story which becomes terribly frantic and therefore funny;

     the power struggle between the Fairy King and Queen over the changeling boy which also turns funny for a while but, to my mind, remains a tragedy of family conflict (which is also implied in the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta who are played with the same attitudes, by the same actors);

     and of course the story of the ‘rude mechanicals’, in which Bottom the weaver is tragically funny in his overbearing manner – but the success of their performance, which depends on him, makes for a happy community, which Theseus recognises (as he does in overriding Egeus' complaint) while Hyppolita is scathing about their silliness. 

But in the end what makes the play so worthwhile is Shakespeare explicitly explaining how it is the artist – and only the artist – who keeps the madness of the real world in perspective.  By reprising at the very end the scene where the lovers wake up in the forest after Oberon has got Puck to apply the potion correctly, Kip Williams has placed the focus on Shakespeare’s message.  Demetrius asks are we still asleep and dreaming, or are we awake and is this reality? 

Puck repeats the question in his final speech, asking us in the real audience to be his friends and give him applause.  In doing so, Shakespeare is playing out the ‘tragical comedy’ that I see around us every day, from the family violence game, through politicians playing games with same-sex marriage plebiscites, to the end-game of warfare in the name of religious belief or democratic freedom.

Or arts ministers undermining artists in the name of ‘excellence’.

I think the clarity of purpose in this production has been carried through in the stage design, lighting and use of music, making all these elements into an integrated artistic work.  Shakespeare might be surprised at some modern devices, like the smart phone which answers a crucial question, or Puck singing ‘Summertime, and the living is easy…’, but I’m sure Shakespeare would be pleased that what he hoped to do for his audience in the days of the Queen’s lover being executed among all the other excruciating behaviours of his times, has been faithfully translated for our modern yet still so unchanging times.  This is Shakespeare, the artist of great intellect.

And speaking of unchanging times, amongst all the terrrific performances, it was great to see Bruce Spence, after all these years since his oyster-up-the-nose trick in that early David Williamson play, Stork, glorying in playing the most marvellous Wall with chinks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This production is a real dream, and not be missed.

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