REVIEW: The Dreamer (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Matt Baker

[Sleep Cycle]

I was once told that writing a review is like trying to explain a dream. From symbols and metaphors to narratives and character, the craft of dissecting the sub-textual subtlety of art is not unlike articulating the intangible process of the unconscious mind. How ideas, whether conscious or not, are delivered and interpreted are as vital to their permanence in the mind of the dreamer as they are to an audience. A seamless blend of Eastern and Western literature, melodrama, music, and movement, The Dreamer, inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tang Xianzu’s The Peony Pavilion, and presented by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre in association with Gecko Theatre Company, coalesces in a theatrical language with a fluency that clearly communicates to and resonates with its audience.

Employing the former source material for literal narrative, dramaturg Nick Yurongiun and director Richard Rusk incorporate the latter to add a dramatic complexity to the (albeit abridged) Shakespearean story. A predominantly movement-based performance, with minimal Chinese and English spoken-word, The Dreamer is set in modern-day Shanghai and follows Helena, an underappreciated office worker, as she struggles to engage with her co-workers Lysander, Hermia, and Demetrius – the latter also being the recipient of her unrequited affections. When not daydreaming during meetings or suffering the repetition of a nine-to-five, Helena loses (or perhaps finds) herself in Xianzu’s protagonist Du Liniang, as the “mechanicals” ensemble begin to blur the lines between both worlds.

From its Brechtian opening sequence, movement director Christopher Evans makes the most of every moment, whether it be a birthing dream or simply scrolling through social media. The eight-strong cast (Yang Ziyi, Liu Peng, Lan Haimeng, Wu Jingwei, Yang Jingran, Chen Shan, Wang Weishuai, and Zhou Zidan) execute the choreography flawlessly, will still finding freedom within the structure to give melodramatic yet sincere, and funny yet poignant performances. Stage design by Rhys Jarman and Sang Qi allow Cui Haigang’s set, and Chris Swain and Wang Beijun’s lighting to come to life as characters in and of themselves, creating a theatrical dreamlike world that rivals the CGI of the Hollywood screen. Costume and props by Rhys Jarman and Leng Jia, and Liu Yiping, are equally magnificent, as their practical and theatrical uses enhance the manifestations of the subconscious influence on reality, and vice versa. Complementing the visual spectacle is musician Ni Peiwen, composer Dave Price, and sound designer Wang Yixuan, whose aural component creates an atmosphere that carries a sense of unease through the majority of the work.

Premiering as part of the British Council’s Shakespeare Lives programme in 2016, the 400-year anniversary of both Shakespeare and Xianzu’s deaths, The Dreamer proves that not only are the themes of disconnection, unrequited love, and acceptance both timeless and universal, but they are issues that arise from reality – and our perspective of it. As one who typically loathes preshow announcements, the acknowledgement of the Christchurch terrorist attack, followed by a minute of silence, was a welcome preface to a show that gave its audience, even if only for 90 minutes, respite from the reality of the world around them.

The Dreamer played at The Civic as part of the 2019 Auckland Arts Festival.

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