A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(Queensland Ballet)


By chance, I have been reading through A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a somewhat reluctant school-age daughter as part of my one-parent-versus-the-world campaign to redress the neglect of Shakespeare in schools. So this was the ideal opportunity to look at a dance version of the play, together with daughter.

And what an opportunity it turned out to be.

This is an absolutely stunning production, which I can happily recommend to anyone who likes ballet or who likes a good show of any kind.

The approach taken is to represent the events in the Athenian woods as the dream of Hippolyta, whom we meet in the first scene as she prepares for her wedding. Then, Wizard of Oz style, she and other characters from the real world become key figures in the fairy kingdom ruling the woods. They become her dream. It’s a device that works well, allowing all sorts of interesting exploration of character and people’s hidden yearnings.

The show opens in Athens, at the ducal palace, where preparations are underway for Hippolyta’s wedding to Theseus. The set is dominated by the largest full moon imaginable. The royal couple dance with aristocratic formality, the duke conducting business of state in the midst of paying his respects to his bride-to-be. But he hints at deeper feelings by having his servant deliver a red hibiscus-like flower to Hippolyta, which she treasures and is to become the source of the love potion in her dream.

The presentation of the fairy world is original and stunning. Lit by that amazing moon which dominated the Athenian court, but with kaleidoscopic flashes of color, the woods consist of fascinating vines and creepers suggesting a rainforest or a centuries-old banyan tree, centring on a huge tree stump which serves many purposes in giving upstage dancers height and camouflage. The leaf-clad sprites of various shapes and forms are far from the benign “fairies at the bottom of the garden” of more recent popular imagination: in their appearance and dances they radiate a complex sense of mystery, mischief, menace and, we must admit, an earthy attraction. Certainly in Hippolyta’s dream, where she become Titania, Queen of the Fairies, we see a different person from the courtly lady of Athens, as she explores her desires and longings, and also a determination not to be overpowered by the Fairy King, Oberon.

A very clever technique is the representation of time warps. On occasion, as the human characters move in slow-motion pace across the stage, the fairies dance around them, indicating that the two species are in different dimensions. The funniest application of this is a cat fight between the two women (over their menfolk): their slow-motion kicks and scratches as they get tangled up between themselves and the men make for a most effective sequence.

Having long been a fan of Mendelssohn’s charming incidental music to the play, I had some misgivings when hearing that a range of musical types would be included. Indeed, it seemed that not all the original music was used, and not in the usual order. It is supplemented by extracts from Mendelssohn symphonies. But the 20th Century American music used by Klaus is perfect. An adaptation of contemporary composer Steve Reich’s 1976 “minimalist” work “Music for 18 musicians”, with its repetitive, hypnotic rhythms, fits perfectly with the eery forest setting, while Charles Ives’ 1908 “Unanswered question” provides a more timeless feeling of enchantment.

One of the joys of Shakespeare’s play is that in addition to the romantic twists and turns between the blighted four, plus the fairy king and queen’s rivalry and Puck’s mischief, there is a very entertaining subplot involving the “mechanicals” the Athenian tradesmen who have decided to prepare a short play to perform at the Duke’s wedding. Their antics allow for much poking of fun by Shakespeare at various styles of acting and rehearsing. Klaus and his dancers have rendered the “low comedy” of the mechanicals’ scenes into highly comical dance sequences. Slightly tinkering with the original by making Nick Bottom rather than Quince the director of the group as well as its chief clown and victim, they produce routines which send up not only conventions of theatre, but also of dance. The group’s attempts to teach one of their number (who must perform as tragic heroine Thisbe in their play) how to be a ballerina, including the techniques of pointe, is very amusing, and Thisbe/Flute is delightfully danced by Richard Chapman. Similarly very entertaining is all the carry-on of the performed play, with a hilarious climax when the characters representing lion, moon and wall break into a can-can behind the death throes of the doomed lovers.

The star of the mechanicals is Paul Boyd as Bottom, who splendidly captures his frustrations in trying to direct the play with his amateur group, as well as his confused attracting of a love-tricked Titania. I must say that rather than the pair of donkey ears and tail approach used here I prefer the traditional “re-capitation” of Bottom with an ass’s head, in order to accentuate the incongruity of Titania’s passion (after all, many a fine girl has fallen for a chap with long ears), but concede that we’d thereby have missed the wonderfully expressive face of Boyd. (And throughout this ballet, facial expressions as well as mimed conversations between characters on the fringes of the action, play an important part. These dancers act well.)

The most fascinating aspect of the mechanicals’ sequences is that they provide their own music. One doesn’t quite expect to have an actual musical instrument on stage during a ballet, but here we have a piano accordionist belting out popular ditties while being pushed and pulled around on a wooden cart on wheels (the cart also serving to carry the would-be actors’ costumes and props). It works very well, and earns a great reaction from the audience. Accordionist Tanya Keating patiently endures the antics around her while playing with great verve, although I would have preferred the melodies to have been played from memory so that she could have seemed more a participant in the activities, rather than reading sheet music.

With such a talented troupe it is very hard to single out favorites. All eight (!) of the principals are splendid, and there is much good work from the large corps, with many opportunities for individuality in the midst of group work. Of the principals, Michael Braun as Puck (and, in non-dream mode, the duke’s servant) is admirable. He represents charm, mischief and merry-making as he weaves in and out of the lovers’ lives with some fantastic dancing. Rachael Walsh and Anthony Lewis are a magnificent couple as Titania and Oberon in the fairy world, and as Hippolyta and Theseus on terra firma. Their interactions and differing relationship are danced with grace and confidence throughout.

David Semple does a wonderful job as Demetrius in first fobbing off (firmly but politely) and then passionately wooing Helena, while Hayley Farr as Hermia is an enchanting sweetheart (and effective woman betrayed) to Tama Barry’s confident Lysander.

I was glad to see Kimberley Davis as Helena (she dances Titania some nights). The way she captured that poor love-lorn and confused girl was absolutely perfect. First she is in pursuit of the hapless Demetrius, who is totally without interest in her, having fallen for Lysander’s gal Hermia. Clinging to him, letting him walk all over her, even at one stage leaping onto his back, she never gives in. Then, because of a recklessly careless mistake by Puck in anointing the love potion, she finds herself attracting the full-on attentions of the wrong chap, Lysander, and then, again thanks to Puck’s work, being pursued simultaneously by both young men. The way she portrays the shift of feelings from “what’s going on you guys/ stop pretending that you like me/ ‘cos I know you’re only laughing at me” to “shucks guys/ I think you might be serious/ what the hell/ I’m going with this” is just perfect.

As a whole, the choreography works in what surely must be one of its major aims telling the story. One should be able to understand a ballet without reference to the plot synopsis, and by that test, this is A1. It wasn’t entirely clear at first that Titania and Oberon were at loggerheads, and perhaps I missed Puck’s decision to transform Bottom, but overall the narrative was very clear, which is no mean feat when handling Shakespeare. However I would recommend to those who see this ballet that they read or re-read Shakespeare’s version, as the text and the dance/music enrich each other.

The new Queensland Orchestra under Thomas Woods does a very good job in performing the various musical genres. Sometimes brass seemed to be at war with strings, and they didn’t always get their act back together with a flourish following the long breaks caused by the on-stage accordion-accompanied antics. After all, it would be easy to lose count of the bar rests after a thousand or so of them.

One can pick minor blemishes, but in all this is a show very well worth seeing. It’s the sort of ballet people should see who in their past have been bored by overly-formal, convention-ridden productions of classical ballet. I found it riveting and satisfying from beginning to end. As for the teenage daughter, she was enchanted.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Mon 19th March 2001)