Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the perfect pick for Summer Shakespeare, traditionally held in the Dell in Wellington’s Botanical Gardens at night in the middle of summer, but then the production moved to the basement theatre at Te Whaea in Newtown, and things pivoted from the usual. It was odd not to be sitting on scratchy dry grass, gradually getting colder and colder in Wellington’s night air as the show progressed, and instead watching from the front row of a rostrum in a concrete basement, players mere feet from my face, but it was a good time all the same.
‘Things pivoting from the usual’ is an apt description for this iteration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Shane Bosher, straight from another directing gig at Circa. With queering of the story, considerable amounts of neon, and many meta moments, it’s certainly not your usual.
Autocratic and tyrannical Duke of Athens, Theseus (Hamish Boyle), is getting ready for his politically convenient marriage to Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Sara Douglas), when their company is interrupted by Egeus (Phil Peleton), Hermia’s father, who demands that she marry Demetrius (Matthew Staijen-Leach), a beloved sort, instead of the man she loves, Lysander (Andrew Clarke). Theseus presents Hermia (Aimee Sullivan), with an impossible choice. She must either marry Demetrius, or be put to death. Forced to flee into the woods, Hermia and Lysander, as well as Demetrius and Helenus (Dryw McArthur) – who’s madly in love with Demetrius already – run into some quarrelling fairies, get dosed with an aphrodisiac, and really, the chaos starts there.
The fairies who live in the woods – Queen Oberon (Grace Hoet) and Queen Titania (Catherine Zulver) – are squabbling over trivial matters. Oberon seeks revenge by sending her delightful henchfairy Puck (Ariadne Baltazar) to fetch the aforementioned aphrodisiac and drip it in Titania’s eyes when she sleeps, confounding her to fall in love with the first thing she sees when she wakes.
On the other side of the woods, a group of Mechanicals are trying to put on a play suitable for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. It doesn’t go especially well. More on that later.
What immediately strikes me about this performance is the sheer sense of fun it has. The characters leap from the page, blazing bright in front of our eyes, and the energy from the performers doesn’t let up for the couple of hours we’re in the space. I especially enjoyed the physicality of the fight scenes – the pivotal confrontation between Helenus, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander being a particular favourite – where all four performers enact incredible complicated choreography and throw their entire selves (quite literally) into it.
The setting is modern, a underground club perhaps, and while I would have loved to have seen this play staged outdoors, the vibe makes sense. In the city, all kinds of colourful weirdness goes down in the wee small hours of night, after all, and in the intimacy of this theatre, we feel a part of the action.
While I found immense enjoyment in watching this show and all those who performed within it, I’d like to make a special mention of the Mechanicals. The officious Petra Quince (Charlotte Dodd), overinflated Bottom (James Bayliss), bashful Snug (David Bowers-Mason), spirited Flute (Jake Brown), and likeable Snout (Lucy McCarthy) and Starveling (Rosemary Lewis) bring so much joy to the piece, playing their roles with a recognisable am-dram charm. We’ve all been there. The Mechanicals mightn’t be natural-born performers, but they’re damn well going to give it a good go, and their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end of the show is over-enthusiastic and full of hilarity, culminating in an epic death scene, complete with ‘daggers’ and water guns.
Those in love in this play, for the most part, have good chemistry, and I do appreciate the casting of Dryw McArthur as a male Helenus (as opposed to Helena, from the original script), and Grace Hoet as a female Oberon. Queering a play like this works incredibly well, and allows for a more modern exploration of some of the relationships, especially considering the setting.
I do wonder a little about the cross-casting of Helenus (Helena), however. McArthur’s playing of Helenus is very strong, quick-witted and clever, and he’s incredibly enjoyable to watch, but I do still wonder about the cross-casting.
It’s an interesting choice when so few women in this playing hit the mark finding the autonomy they so clearly seek – Theseus clearly holds the power in Athens over Hippolyta (despite her being the Queen of the Amazons, come on), and the sheer amount of male lovers draw the eye often more so than Hermia – that it feels a little bit unfortunate to lose such a strong-willed woman from the text. However, I suppose the inclusion of a female Oberon and a female Quince did help balance the piece out somewhat. The cross-casting, and the subsequent queering of the piece helps the play find the modernity it needs, and for the most part, I did appreciate it.
What worries me about the playing of this piece is the confusion around consent. Perhaps Demetrius’ infatuation with Helenus at the end of the play would have been fine at the time of writing, but thinking of it these days leaves a an unsavory taste in the mouth. Near the end of the play, Puck removes the love potion from Lysander, so he’ll only care for Hermia once again. Puck doesn’t, however, remove the potion from Demetrius – as is true in the original text – and Demetrius and Helenus get married, with Demetrius’ infatuation with Helenus seemingly only driven by the potion he’s under. This isn’t ideal for our modern stage, and it is especially not ideal with the queering of this relationship. Is Demetrius bisexual, or is his love for Helenus only drawn from the potion? Does he truly care for him, or is it just coercion? Does this relationship work beyond the pages of the script?
Perhaps this was the director’s intention – Dream does feature a spectrum of depictions of love/”love” – from the unyielding, unbreakable bond Hermia and Lysander have, to the bitter-tasting thing that has Theseus and Hippolyta – it could be a meta take. However, it reads uncomfortably, and could have easily be remedied with tiny alterations to the script, or different non-verbal playing of the relationship between the characters. Helenus says, “The more I love, the more he hateth me,” and was Demetrius of sound mind and will, it seems like that’d still be true at the end of the piece.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a glorious celebration of one of Shakespeare’s great comedies – blending meta, modernity and music with the glitter and glam of a night out. It’s well worth a watch, if you can stomach the uncomfortable moments that occasionally crop up.