A Midsummer Night’s Dream

AAR Bell Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s DreamArguably one of William Shakespeare’s most popular plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has survived endless interpretations by inventive directors, composers, choreographers and designers working in theatre, opera and dance.

Peter Evans nails his colours to the mast with this production for Bell Shakespeare to substantiate the ethos of the company that Shakespeare’s plays are not static and that his words require constant exploration to be truly appreciated.

Given that much of the play takes place in a forest, and involves fairies and noble folk, the first surprise occurs on entering the theatre. Teresa Negroponte’s stark wooden setting is more suggestive of a shipwreck than a forest. Are we at the right play?

Indeed we are and the reasons for Negroponte’s design choices become obvious as the play progresses. No pretty fairies and luscious forests in Evan’s vision. His fairies are costumed in black, his lovers wear contemporary clothes, his mechanical’s wear rough loose costumes while Negroponte’s abstract setting provides lots of interesting nooks and crannies to accommodate his athletic staging.  It works a treat.

Evans has also taken some liberties with the arrangement of the scenes, commencing his production with the Mechanicals rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, the play they are going to present at Theseus’s wedding, then bookending his production with their actual performance.

The opening scene ends with a stunning coup de theatre during which the Mechanicals suddenly transform into the Nobles arguing over the arrangements for the wedding. It is at this point the wisdom of Evans’ decision to cast his production with just eight actors becomes evident.

By deflecting the attention from sets and costumes with the clever use of props and having his actor’s adopt a strongly physical acting style, he’s not only able to showcase the versatility of his cast, but also focus the attention on Shakespeare’s words.

A surprising result of this strategy is that the scene in which the four lovers argue, which in the hands of less skilled actors can often become tedious, became the highlight, due in part to the extraordinarily physical staging by Nigel Poulton but also to the inventive performances by Isabel Burton and Ahunim Abede as Helena and Hermia, and Mike Howlett and Laurence Young as Demetrius and Lysander.

Matu Ngaropo scored early in the play with his wonderfully over-the-top performance as Bottom, which was in complete contrast to his interpretation of Hermia’s unyielding father, Egeus.

Imogen Sage offered a regal, subservient Hippolyta to contrast with her wily Titania, while Richard Pyros brought a malevolent edge to his interpretation of Oberon, which was particularly obvious in his relationship with Puck, engagingly portrayed by Ella Prince.

This marvellously entertaining production from Bell Shakespeare is particularly notable for the inventiveness and physicality of its staging, which, while contributing to the clarity and therefor enjoyment of the text, surprisingly reveals a hitherto unsuspected darkness in the writing suggested in Max Lyandvert’s moody soundscape.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Friday 7 June 2024
Season Continues to 15 June 2024
Bookings: www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au

Following the Canberra season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play the Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre (18 June), Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre, Nowra (20 June), Goulburn Performing Arts Centre (23 June), Mildura Arts Centre (26 June) and the Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs (29 June). For more information, visit: www.bellshakespeare.com.au for details.

Image: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – photo by Brett Boardman

Review: Bill Stephens OAM