REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Auckland Theatre Company)

Bottom's Dream

Fancy a Puck? [by James Wenley]

Puck's got Swagger

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, hobgoblin Puck famously excuses all that has gone before as a “weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream”. If so, it was a fantastic and crazy dream that the audience collectively dreamed in the theatre. While Puck undersells the thematic depths of the play, Auckland Theatre’s Company’s fast and furious streamlined show (no interval!) emphasises the fun and farce of love gone very, very wrong.

Midsummer Night’s Dream, though taking inspiration from several sources, is credited as being Shakespeare’s only original plot. It’s one of his most popular too – a comic plot that sees a love quadrangle of miss-matched Athenian youths Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius enter the woods, which also contains a group of amateur actors rehearsing a play for the wedding of Duke Theseus (Peter Daube) to his exotic bride Hippolyta (Goretti Chadwick), as well as being the home of mischievous fairies, reigned over by feuding lovers King Oberon (Xavier Horan) and Queen Titania (Alison Bruce).

I wish my own dreams looked like this. An almost unbearably bright red raked stage looks out at us, a fittingly unbalanced playing space which at various times the actors climb, slide and leap off. No subtly here then – the red of fervent passion and desire dominates. The gloriously styled black and white fashions of the four lovers – including Brooke Williams’ Hermia school girl burlesque chic topped with  an upside-down cupcake tutu, and Josh McKenzie’s wrapped in a foppishly large bow tie and ankle high socks, take a bow designer Nic Smillie – gets considerably skimpier the longer the play goes on.  Goretti Chadwick’s Hippolyta, going against received interpretation, is rather into her Theseus. And there are enough bare-chested men to rival the wolf pack of the Twilight films.

This includes theatre legend Raymond Hawthorne, who celebrated his 76th birthday performing on a preview night, making for a Puck unlike any other. With the character’s casting traditionally the domain of younger, limber men (and sometimes women), the casting of Hawthorne was the productions big talking point. Hawthorne invests his performance with a richness of expression and twinkle of the eye, and evidently savors bounding around the stage, swinging his arms back and exiting frequently to do his master’s bidding (he can of course put a girdle around the earth in “forty-minutes”). There’s comedy to be mined here too as Puck rethinks the ambition of some of his leaps. There are some interesting implications for Puck in Oberon wanting to take a changeling boy from Titania as his servant. Arlo Gibson, who plays the changeling boy (a character not seen in Shakespeare’s text), with beanpole frame and long locks looks like he could be a very good fit for the traditional Puck…

Hawthorne opens the show spray painting his mark – ‘PK’ – on the Maidment’s wall, and looks striking in tight pants, open chest and dark suit jacket; this is Puck as an ageing Punk with a bad attitude. With an entirely fresh and exciting interpretation of the character, the exploration fell short –  the promise of the anarchic, anti-authoritarian, up yours ‘Pucker’ was only part fulfilled.

Coming off the back of a commanding presence and performance in the Maori Troilus and Cressida, surprisingly Xavier Horan’s Oberon fails to make a impression, and is overshadowed by Alison Bruce’s luminous Titania. Her band of Bohemian and off-their-nutter fairies, who wouldn’t look out of place in a Tim Burton production, are fabulous to observe, and provide some suitably ethereal (and sometimes contemporary) singing through the play. As well as Puck, they are a frequent presence in the play, observing the strange coming and goings of the mortals.

The four lovers are charismatic and very watchable, though again the girls outshine the boys. Brooke Williams Hermia is a pretty girl mix of vanity and vulnerability, and Laurel Devenie expresses Helena’s hopes, fears and frustrations with utter clarity, drawing sympathy for her unloved situation at the same time as realising the character comedy, pushing Helena to the extremity as events get more and more mixed up.

Bottom's Dream

From the first casting announcement, Andrew Grainger seemed like the perfect Bottom. Gregarious, boisterous and utterly charming, he’s a constant source of comedy. The ‘rude mechanicals’ of Shakespeare are updated and translated here as taking on the menial jobs in today’s society. Bottom becomes a kitchen hand, Snug the Joiner (Italia Hunt) is Snug the Rat Exterminator and Peter Quince the carpenter becomes Peta Quince the cleaner, complete with vacuum cleaner on her back (Rima Te Wiata’s portrayal is another firm highlight). The troupe of misfits are completed by a Scottish Snout (Robert Mokaraka), fresh faced Starvelling (Aisea Latu) and laddish Flute (Brett O’Gorman).

By the end of Act Four, all the main plot threads are tied up to allow Act Five to concentrate on the play’s great set-piece – the play within a play of Pyramus and Thisbe – which does not disappoint. Inventively using costumes and props from their areas of their work – Bottom wears a suit of armour made of cooking trays, Snout’s wall becomes a mattress, the production goes all out in making us laugh at a play so bad its good. It’s a sly commentary by Shakespeare on the power of theatre and audience imagination – the nobles repeatedly interjecting about the play’s merits, unable to see anything beyond the literal, as well as a generally brilliant piss take of actors. Believe me; the play is worth it for this scene alone.

There are some really nice touches through the play. The power of the ‘love-in-idleness’ flower, which makes Titania, Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with the first thing they see, is represented by a mark on the character’s head. This visual becomes an interesting an slightly uneasy reminder of Oberon’s love intervention when Demetrius is the sole character to continue to sport it when pairing off with Helena at the end. Does ‘true love’ really triumph?

Light and smoke rising from under the red floor boards (both the work of Tony Rabbit) make for a charged playing space.

John Gibson’s soundtrack, performed live by guitarist Brett Adams, is a truly special element of this production. The music, often working cinematically over the dialogue, gives an added urgency to the lover’s flight, and sets the rapid pace of the play. There are themes and riffs that return, such as the strains that accompany Puck’s entrances. It is this music, evocative of Pink Floyd, that best transports us into a dream state.

Midsummer is a unique directing alchemy of Colin McColl (Oberon?) and mischievous Ben Crowder (Puck?), who resisted blocking and together ‘played’ with the text in the rehearsal room, which McColl describes as a “new approach to a rehearsal process”. There’s a real liveliness and inventiveness to this shared Dream, though at times the slapstick and clever business threatens to supersede the Shakespeare. From the start the entire play takes place in the same heightened and stylised world, with no distinction for the character’s journeys in and out of the woods. The play suffers for this – while Bottom might transform into an ass, we miss seeing a wider transformation into the world of magic and wonder, a ‘dream within a dream’.

Against all this, the best and most vital moment in the play is the simplest, and the very last. Hawthorne’s Puck arrives at the edge of the Maidment stage, and breathes life into his famous, final speech “If we shadows have offended…”. It’s fitting this moment, guided by Hawthorne’s consummate performance, cast the greatest spell. Dream away!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at The Maidment until 26th May. More details see ATC.co.nz

Check out Sharu’s interview with Oberon Xavier Horan!

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Lexie Matheson

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