A strong and vital theme [by James Wenley]
British Shakespeare great Simon Russell Beale (who toured here as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale alongside Ethan Hawke) was recently quoted in The Observer arguing that it is fine to take liberties with Shakespeare. “You can do what you like with it – as long as you make coherent, emotional sense… I see absolutely no problem in throwing Shakespeare around” says Russell Beale.
These are comments that New Zealand’s Shakespeare all-rounder Michael Hurst would agree with. In his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the University of Auckland’s Outdoor Summer Shakespeare, the first time he has directed the play in his long career, he’s thrown Shakespeare around quite a bit. There are gentle textual nips (Egeus’ ultimatum that his daughter should go to a nunnery or be put to death if she disobeys him is downplayed) and a flutter of elderly fairies (more on this later), but the most striking aspect is the liberal dose of modern English asides and exclamations the actors have inserted into the iambic. The result is one of the clearest productions of Shakespeare I have seen in terms of communicating the storytelling, and it achieves this without dumbing itself down.
For example, Hermia says what any teenage girl would say when their father is messing with her love life – “God Dad, you’re so embarrassing”. These are Helena and Hermia’s for the Girls generation. Natasha Daniel’s Hermia is not going to put up with anyone getting in the way of the man she has set her sights on – Lysander (Liam Ferguson). Anthea Hill’s Helena, who fancies Demetrius (Ryan Dulieu on my night, he shares the role with Arlo Gibson) is a Lena Dunham train-wreck. Tipsy when we first meet her, she casts herself as one of life’s victims. With a readily sympathetic performance, Hill was a standout audience favourite. The boys are less distinct, but their puppy dog antics when a certain love potion causes them to both fall for Helena are a riot.
Hurst’s staging, as expected, is excellent. A catwalk stage draws focus to the university’s grand old trees – there are no imaginative leaps required to conjure the Athenian forest. Bulbous lamp-posts dotted around the university grounds extend the space, and Rachel Marlow’s lighting design and fairy lights help make sitting in the outdoor space a breath-taking experience. The arrival of the fairies is timed almost magically with the fading light. Dressed to the nines (superb detailing from costume designer Troy Garton), and with ghoulish Tim Burton-esque makeup (Eric Waite and Cut Above Academy), it as if they have bought the darkness with them.
Indeed, Hurst is attracted to some of the darker edges of the play and finds the themes to be not “weak” or “idle” in the slightest. Callum Backmore’s live score sounds like an old-school horror or Hitchcock film, suspenseful and unsettling. While Hurst chooses not to play up any discord between Duke Theseus (Julian Toy-Cronin) and his bride-to-be Hippolyta (Maxine Cunliffe), whom he wooed, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, with this “sword”, it is the conflict between fairy royalty Oberon (Alistair Browning) and Titania (a superb Sheena Irving) that really upsets the balance. Bitter and twisted, Oberon is played as more villain than trickster, and his controlling point scoring schemes to get the better of his wife comes off as quite nasty.
Oberon also has a rather interesting ‘casual’ relationship with his Puck. Auckland Theatre Company’s production did something radical by casting Raymond Hawthorne as the mischievous Puck, Hurst goes the other way by casting a young woman, Amber-Rose Henshall as Puck, and casting a ensemble of elderly fairies with actors from 65+ acting troupe Marvellous (who Hurst directed in the sublime The Waste Land, and whose members have rather taken over Auckland theatre this month, also appearing in The Ladykillers). Oberon and Puck canoodle and flirt, and when Puck says she wants to “make Oberon smile”, there is no doubt what she means. This interpretation remains one-note, Henshall focusses on sexuality rather than exploring further dimensions of Robin Goblin’s personality. The naughty Marvellous fairies, with names like “Fairy Hells Bells” and and “Fairy Teasel Willowtist” (check them out in the program) help bring an other-worldly quality to the play, and their seen-it-all-before languor is a striking contrast to the young lovers. They get their own song-and-dance numbers, well choreographed by Emily Campbell. However, their singing is drowned out by slick Athenians Troy-Cronin, Cunliffe and Mustaq Missouri on the microphone, and Hurst has missed the chance to really help sell the spooky mood. Cut the mics, and let’s hear the fairies themselves, though quiet, I reckon this could be spine-tingling.
It’s not all dark – this one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies after all – and I all have to say is to tell you that that the “rude mechanicals”, the troupe of actors who prepare a play for Theseus’s wedding day, are very, very charming and funny. Recognisable too: young Flute (Jeremy Fraser-Hoskin) wears an Auckland Grammar uniform and wants to be anywhere else other than rehearsal. And Quince (Jenny Parham) is the consummate professional stuck doing community theatre. Patrick Graham is a wonderfully indulgent Bottom; though he generates his own cloud of smug as a theatre luvvie, he’s also redeemably sweet. A great balance. Once the escapades in the woods and plot threats have been wound up, our reward is to sit back and watch their brilliantly bad performance of the play-within-the play.
For those that know their A Midsummer Night’s Dreams, like me, this is a fresh, yet ultimately faithful production with actors well-schooled in the text. You should bring along someone who is not so familiar, this production is the perfect gate-way drug to the wonders of Shakespeare.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is presented by AUSA Outdoor Summer Shakespeare and plays outside the University of Auckland Clocktower until 7 March. Details see The Maidment.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Jan Maree