While being constantly reinvented for the stage, it is refreshing to see a conventional adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s not to say this new production by Sarah McCoy is unadventurous or tiresome it’s the absolute opposite. In fact, I dare anyone not to give this production a standing ovation when they’re not slapping their knee in laughter at the ‘mechanicals’ or being entranced by the woodland fairies. Dream, rather than a play, feels more like a set of interwoven masquerades, shifting location from Athens to Fairyland, yet doesn’t take away from its overall effectiveness in demonstrating high-energy comedy at its finest. McCoy’s literal interpretation of the text has her painting Oberon’s forest in typical Victorian design, with a slight sense of neuroticism.
The link between the enchanted forest and the classical world of Athens is the young maiden Hermia (Melanie Zanetti) who refuses to accept her father’s choice of suitor, Demetrius (Nick Skubij), and instead runs away with her lover, Lysander (Sam Clark). Egeus (Paul Adams), Hermia’s father, enlists the aid of Theseus (Vanja Matula), the Duke of Athens, to enforce his wishes upon his daughter. Under Athenian law, Hermia must accept her father’s decision or perish, yet Theseus grants her the choice of life-long chastity. Hermia and Lysander thus escape into the forest by night. Hermia informs her friend, Helena (Imogen Hopper) of her plans, not knowing that Helena has just been rejected by Demetrius. Helena doggedly follows Demetrius as he plans to meet up with Hermia in the woods. Meanwhile, Oberon (Vanja Matula), king of the fairies, and his wife Titania (Julie-Anna Edwards) arrive at the forest outside Athens. Titania intends to stay in Athens to attend the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta (Julie-Anna Edwards), yet Oberon, who has become estranged from his wife, recruits the mischievous Puck (Ross Balbuziente) to help punish her. Elsewhere in the forest a band of labourers (or ‘mechanicals’) are practising to perform a version of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ for Theseus’ wedding.
Now, if that seems like an eyeful of affiliations and intentions, it surely is, but it sets the platform for the hilarity that will ensue in later acts. The play itself is one that grows on the audience from beginning to end. While the first moments between Hippolyta and Theseus are of bare design and performance, the following scenes in the forest and Athens provide a visual feast and tour-de-force performances from the 20-strong cast. The slapstick romps involving the bewildered lovers with their misplaced passions are comedy at its finest but they’re almost upstaged by the ‘mechanicals’ led by Mathew Filkins as Nick Bottom, whose enthusiasm and comedic timing has to be seen to be believed. Yet, the act to be treasured comes when the ‘mechanicals’ recite their version of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, where Francis Flute played by Dash Kruck performs a rendition of a woman so hilarious it had the sold-out crowd in tears.
Credit must also be given to the strong supporting cast who made this version of Dream a delight, with their flawless projection and spot-on characterisation. Ross Balbuziente revels in the physicality of Puck while Vanja Matula projects a sense of other-worldly charm with his dual performance as Theseus and Oberon. Imogen Hopper as Helena is the standout female performer, switching from love-crazed to melancholy in an instant, while Melanie Zanetti as Hermia is nothing short of a bundle of energy. Sam Clark as Lysander and Nick Skubij as Demetrius display obvious chemistry with each of their partners and seem to take pleasure in the farcical nature of the goings-on in the forest.
The stage design by Josh McIntosh seems too simple in the early scenes in Athens with Theseus and Hippolyta. Early judgements like this are short-lived though when we are pulled into the world of the forest where fairy lights, natural textures and soft lighting create the dream-like visage that overpowers the central characters. The exotic environment imparts a sense of wonder contrasting with the real world of Athens.
The music by composer Kylie Morris is also off-putting at first listen with bursts of sporadic synthesised tunes breaking up the earlier scenes. Once we reach Fairyland though, sounds of mischievous voices, crickets and birds lead us into a fantastical and eerie world. There the use of angelic harmonies and soft music are employed to shift from one scene to the other with good effect.
Choreography by Callum Mansfield should be given special mention with so many actors on such a small stage. The physicality of the production gives off a feeling of legitimacy with each actor throwing each other around at great peril in some instances. Contrasting with that is the sense of marvel one feels when the three dancing fairies periodically take flight in unison around the forest.
For all the reinventions of such a classic Shakespearean text, the classic adaptation still holds strong in today’s world. McCoy’s willingness to add a sense of neurosis to the production not only differentiates it from other adaptations but makes it stronger. The enthusiasm displayed by all on stage cannot be ignored when viewing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its certainly not going to make you drift off into your own reverie.