The most recent production of A Midsummer Nights Dream I had seen was The Australian Ballet’s interpretation last year, “The Dream”. The ballet was full of whimsical fairies and enchanted forests, the dancing light and airy as it retold Shakespeare’s fanciful story of love and folly. Here again in the Sydney Theatre Company’s latest adaption of Midsummer there exists that story of love and folly, but replace the word whimsy with haunting, enchanted forests with stark emptiness, the light with darkness and the airy with a heavy dose of seriousness.
In this adaption of the tale certain aspects of the play are given more weighting, predominantly (as two cast members had previously informed me) the fact that early in the play a father demands permission to execute his own daughter if she will not marry the man he has selected, and the secondly the fact that an out-of-control magical creature is running about the forest seeking thrills in the form of turning people to donkeys and messing with their heads. Now that you think about it more that is a little bit terrifying Mr Shakespeare Sir.
The staging emphasizes all the bleakness of these darker aspects, the stage itself kept bare and separated on the walls by the white paint contrasted to black. The main cast sprint throughout the space, dressed in suits and wedding dresses, sequins and little else. And the blood! So much blood. It sprays across the sterile white floor and onto the pristine white of the dresses. Not for the faint of heart (or for those with a particular fondness for puffy sleeved vintage-looking wedding dresses).
The four young Athenians gave particularly powerful performances as Lysander (Rob Collins), Helena (Honey Debelle), Demetrius (Brandon McClelland) and Hermia (Rose Riley), as you see their grips on reality slipping. Their mad outbursts making you quiver in your seats. In particular Debelle’s Helena was full of such unbridled emotion and gradual brokenness that I found myself watching her most of all.
Matthew Backer’s Puck is the one you can’t take your eyes off though. At the very opening of the production the pitch-black room flashes in a single strobe light and a heavy bass resonates through the audience. Puck is seen in these moments of lighting, his back to us and his body moving along with the music. Again the room returns to pitch black, again the strobe flashes to illuminate Puck, and the deep bass continues. Amidst all this Backer begins to sing Gershwin’s “Summertime”, and his voice is eerie, powerful and perfect.
So here is a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where reason and love do indeed keep very little company. It’s grisly and all kinds of messed up sexually. There is intense drama and a good deal of dark humour, but just be prepared for your state of mind to be lead up and down at a very fast pace.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be playing at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until the 22nd October. For more information and to book visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au