NO DREAMS HERE: STC’S A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

September 24, 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays. You can read me bang on about it on numerous occasions on my blog. This will not be another one of them. This is the fourth Dream I’ve seen this year, and it was also the most eagerly awaited, and certainly one of the most anticipated shows of this year. But as is often the case, the greater the expectations, the harder the fall, and the more painful it is when it doesn’t work. And so it is with Kip Williams’ production for Sydney Theatre Company.

This production seems to owe a passing debt to Peter Brook’s seminal 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production which toured the world (you know the one I mean). But where Brook was rebelling – and quite rightly – against the accumulated gossamer and Romantic notion of the Dream that had built up in theatrical tradition since the 1800s, this production almost seems to want to shock us. In seeking to draw out the darkness within Shakespeare’s play and to serve, in some respects, as a corrective to the accumulated detritus around the Dream both locally and abroad, Williams and his team create a psycho-sexual space for the play to sit in and in doing so, impose a stark and austere world of lumpy fairies, hooded figures, and semi-Lynchian images upon the text without too much consideration for the textual engine at work beneath it. In doing so, Williams removes the ability of the audience to dream, and thereby denies the production its power; by being all intellectual and deliberate and calculated about it, it can only come of as quite superficial.

The darkness in the Dream is there in the text; I am not disputing that. But part of the marvellousness of the Dream in production is how you treat that darkness – do you make it physical, visible, apparent, in part or whole, or do you leave it to the shadows, to the half-seens and might-have-glimpseds, the implications. In some respects, it’s like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – by making the violence physical, almost a parody of itself, you deny it its power, and it loses its impact; Anthony Burgess’ novel knew this (and works much better for it) in this regard, as your imagination fills in the blanks and makes it as violent (or not) as you can stomach. So too in the theatre – the best productions are like colouring-in books, in that they give you the outlines, maybe even the pencils if they’re being generous, but they then “upon your imaginary forces work” and allow – necessitate; require; need – you to fill in the gaps and complete the picture. Thus it is with the Dream – the darkness and sexual violence and skin-crawling unsettlingness is all there in the text; it’s up to the production how they handle it or not. Some of the best productions I’ve seen of the Dream look the darkness in the eye, stare it down, and then overlay it with a lightness that lets it shine through so it is all the more horrifying and eldritch; it’s like Carol Reed’s film of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! – all the dance sequences, jaunty music, and frivolous Technicolour only serve to make the story, the music, more depressing and soul-crushing.

In trying to piece together my thoughts on this production, I began looking at recent Dreams in Australia, and lighted upon Benedict Andrews’ 2004 Dream for Company B Belvoir. And while I was too young to have seen Andrews’ production, I am aware of it in a critical sense, and it seems to me that what Williams is trying to do in his production now, is remarkably similar to what Andrews was trying to achieve twelve years earlier. Kate Flaherty in her book Ours As We Play It has an eloquent account of Andrews’ production, and I can’t help but echo her thinking with regards to this, Kip Williams’ production.

While we largely have Charles and Mary Lamb to thank for the Dream’s appeal to children, we similarly have Jan Kott’s seminal essay ‘Titania  and the Ass’s Head’ to thank for a lot of the dramaturgical thinking on A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the latter part of the twentieth century onwards. Benedict Andrews drew on this in envisioning his fairies at Belvoir, in creating a darker and more sexually-charged Dream than we had hitherto seen, and so too it seems Williams has imbibed of the same content, albeit with more than a dash of Andrews’ own production.

Robert Cousins’ set strips the Drama Theatre back to its bare walls, and paints a 5-foot-high band of white from the floor up, leaving the rest of it black. A scrim with a similar effect covers the front of the stage, and the first half-hour is played behind this. Not only does it place the action too far back in the space, but it distances us – the audience – from the very beginning, physically and emotionally. And in the Drama Theatre, which is absurdly long and deep, this is not so much of a good thing. Alice Babidge’s costumes, while grounded in reality for everyone by the fairies, create a sense of discombobulation from the outset. The intended menace is present in the court (all are men) wearing black hoods, while Hippolyta – in a white wedding gown – has her hands tied, a bouquet to hide the fact. The Mechanicals are all dressed in contemporary street clothes, while the fairies are dressed in lumpy body suits, with stockinged faces, and brightly coloured wigs; pustular and penile protrusions bursting from their bodies, in more than a nod to Kott’s essay, via Andrews’ production. They seem to be the literal evocation of Kott when he says “I imagine Titania’s court consisting of old men and women, toothless and shaking, their mouths wet with saliva, who sniggeringly procure a monster for their mistress.”

Damien Cooper’s lighting keeps the drama in stark fluorescence, all except for several moments – the opening, with Puck singing Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ deep in the space, caught between flashes of bright crackling light; Titania and Bottom’s coupling in vibrant pulsing red, and the lovers’ resolution in the same – and it has a deeply alienating effect. Chris Williams’ score, and Nate Edmondson’s sound design are almost always present, and bombard us with drones, pulses, heart-tripping beats, and snatches of Ligeti. Effective in small doses, but not so much when it’s always there; it’s a very literal one-note reading of the play with little or no variation in tone, colour, style, or brightness. If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were still very much in King Lear territory.

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Shakespeare can withstand a lot of radical and/or misguided interpretations and maintain the clarity of storytelling. But sometimes there comes a production which throws a tonne of stuff at the text, warranted or otherwise, and the text just throws up its hands and refuses to let it stick. And so it is with this Dream. I know what Williams is trying to do here, I do, I really honestly do, yet as much as I want to admire his boldness and forthrightness in flipping almost every popular preconception of the Dream on its head and taking it for a spin, I can’t, because I didn’t feel a thing in watching it. Theatre that makes you not feel, or even feel nothing, is dangerous. Even Brecht with his Verfremdungseffekt – the distancing effect – makes us feel something, although at an intellectual remove. Where Brecht was deliberately “making strange” (the Russian origin of his term) in order to make us see things afresh, with new eyes, here Williams’ weirding feels superficial, too clinical, too intellectual; too calculated; too deliberate to be truly affecting. It seems to echo Kate Flaherty when she says “Andrews’ production performed a muting effect upon both forms of the play’s magic. The characters, rather than actively driving the plot, became elaborate spectacles of abjection.”

Shakespeare’s text is dark. You can’t ignore that, no matter how much you might want to. When you actually look closely at the text, it’s most definitely not a dream: Theseus has won Hippolyta in battle after defeating the Amazons (a trophy bride in a very literal sense); Theseus is quite certainly having an affair with Titania, queen of the fairies (perhaps even the other way around), as well as with “amorous Phyllida”; Oberon and Titania are at war with each other, and Oberon might also be dallying with mortal women. Oberon and Titania’s discord creates chaos in the natural order of things, so it’s little wonder then that the lovers are no less prone to their own troubles.

 

Hermia’s father demands she marry Demetrius but Hermia is in love with Lysander; if Hermia disobeys her father (she is, essentially, his property after all), then she risks death or a becoming a nun (Theseus’ idea). Upon eloping and entering the forest, Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius all have the love potion squeezed into their eyes by Puck and/or Oberon causing no end of confusion and lustful desire for the wrong person, but while the others get their ‘true sight’ restored by Oberon and Puck at the end, Demetrius never does. Helena asks to be used “as your spaniel” – “the more you beat me, the more I fawn on you.” Later, Hermia tears into Helena for being called a “puppet” (there is no end of name-calling here). These are brutal, masochistic metaphors which clang with inappropriateness today, but I think there is a point to them – the brutality and violence of affection-gone-sour, the dark side to love and relationships. 

 

Even the Mechanicals suffer the cruel fate of transformation as Bottom gets a donkey’s head planted upon his own by Puck. While this derives from Greek mythology (making it no less strange or excusable an occurrence), Oberon then bewitches Titania’s sleep so she ‘wakes when some vile thing is near,’ sees Bottom with his donkey’s head and they go to bed together, with all the attendant overtones and realities of bestiality, rape, and god knows what. All of this is in the text. How can you not see this as truly terrifying?!

 

But as I said earlier, it is the lightness of touch in Shakespeare’s own verbal magic, and the balm of the Mechanicals’ humanity that somewhat tempers the darkness. You can’t have dark without light, sunshine without moonlight, Rosencrantz without Guildernstern (no, wait, wrong play). Disrupt the seasons too much (through directorial vision) and you get chaos in the world, as Oberon and Titania find out very quickly.

 

I am not disputing the darkness of the Dream. What I do take issue with is when the balance of darkness and lightness is out of concord at the expense of the text, all for the sake of a bold directorial vision. Some of the best productions I’ve seen of the Dream look the darkness in the eye, stare it down, and then overlay it with a lightness that lets it shine through so it is all the more horrifying and eldritch; just look at Julie Taymor’s production if you want a truly beguiling and terrifying Dream that does not overstay its welcome. Trust Shakespeare to work his magic, and he will trust you to not get in his way.

 

Flaherty again:

In this manifestation of director’s theatre, the intellectual project
was the thing – played, as it were, on what was (mis) understood
as the flat platform of the play. Such an intellectual project is a
bad fit for
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play that is sprung
with its own sophisticated mechanisms of estrangement… the
frame imposed by Andrews’ approach re-instated a dynamic
which smothered the self-reflexive energies of the play, turning a
vitally challenging and multi-voiced work into a titillating spectacle.

 

Williams is a strongly visual director and storyteller, known for the use of poetic space in his productions to open up truths and meaning within texts, but here I feel this backfires as there is too much physical open space, and too much is imposed upon a play which doesn’t need imposing upon. And while I admire Williams’ stagecraft and a lot of his productions, I feel this is his most auteur-y vision to date, and consequently his least successful production, as the emotional connectivity his use of space normally opens up within an audience’s imagination is now completely prescribed; there is no room for interpretation in this forest.

Yet what of the rest of the production, the actual playing of it? The results are alarmingly uneven, especially under Williams’ normally steady and clear-sighted directorial hand.

Williams uses the by-now-customary doubling of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, yet we never feel they are separate characters but rather one that exists in two spaces. Robert Menzies’ Theseus seems toothless, while Paula Arundell’s Hippolyta seems helpless; Oberon is quietly dangerous, while Titania is fierce and alluring, yet strangely passive and without the sexual voracity she has in the text; a lot of her “forgeries of jealousy” speech is lost through the lack of emotion in her delivery, though this is not a fault of Arundell’s performance but rather the direction. Matthew Backer’s Puck is played like a darker version of the MC from Cabaret, and is incredibly strong, mercurial, and dangerous; you truly would not like to cross him in a forest on a dark night. Backer’s performance in hot-pants and stockings with gaudy red lipsticked mouth, eyes, and chest, is neither a send-up nor a caricature, but a creature all of his own, and is all the stronger for it.

The lovers – Rob Collins’ Lysander, Honey Debelle’s Helena, Brandon McClelland’s Demetrius, and Rose Riley’s Hermia – are mostly good, and seem like something out of a David Lynch film, almost like the kids in Twin Peaks. While their puffy white prom dresses seem out of place, their descent into the forest elicits confusion and terror as they bolt at full speed from one corner of the stage to another, up and down and across and back (sometimes pursued by Puck), but their fighting and descent into the psychological pinball of the forest is too emotionless and disaffected for us to care; that is, they seem to be running on pure instinct (albeit acted instinct), and there is not much feeling under their performances; the closest we get is in Hermia’s attack on Helena late in Act Four, where she takes her to task for calling her “a puppet.” Yet during the same scene, Lysander and Demetrius’ wrestling pulls focus from Helena and Hermia’s argument, from the power and emotion of the scene. (And having Puck and Oberon in the background doesn’t help things either, as they are both so passive (and bored looking).)

The Mechanicals, normally the lightness and humanity in the Dream are here turned into a bunch of amateur actors who try to imitate Williams-and-Andrews’ form of spectacle and fail. Not so much because of their characters, but because their antics are forced and each gimmick laboured and pushed further than it should reasonably be. Susan Prior’s Peta Quince marshals everyone to their parts, and has some fun with it too, but her charges aren’t quite as loveable or bumbling as they could (or perhaps should) be; their production of Pyramus and Thisbe is too calculated and cold, and possibly the least funny or moving I have seen.

Josh McConville’s Bottom is perhaps the least-egocentric performance I’ve seen from him to date, but there is a disaffected wonder to his whole transformation, a sense that he is only acting wonderment and not actually feeling it or being it. His transformation, scored to Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ and a sputtering of lights is chilling, but is also too laboured – the donkey’s head is brought on by Puck, and while it looks incredibly realistic and filled with blood which pours down McConville’s head and chest, it is also disaffecting to see him hold the head at chest height while he brays (perhaps coming too) and interacts with Titania and the fairies; the head is a seemingly separate entity to the bodily character of Bottom, though both represent the same thing, and this is disquieting but not always in a good way. His coupling with Titania, rather than happening centre-stage, happens against the furthest back wall of the stage, saturated in a red void, pulsing with nightclub music, as he penetrates her from behind; she cries out, understandably, yet the only thing seemingly missing from this scene is him braying.

The fairies’ roundel song, while beautiful and reminiscent of something Benjamin Britten might have written for his opera, does not fit tonally or otherwise with this production, and thus draws attention to itself. Conversely, Titania’s glamoured awakening – to the strains of Elvis Presley’s ‘Only You’ – works a treat, not least because Paula Arundell’s rich voice and her shimming gold gown seem to be one and the same, and work in conjunction with the lyrics to enhance the moment.

*

 

“What a Dream is here,” Hermia says in Act Four, and I’m inclined to believe her. But perhaps not as Shakespeare or Williams meant it. Setting out to investigate the thrill and terror of sexual awakening – in Williams’ book, as for many others’, they are two sides of the same coin – Williams, like Benedict Andrews before him, strives to “elicit astonishment and in doing so [somewhat heightens] the spectacle, but [dilutes] the affective complexity of the play.” In undercutting the play’s inbuilt textual engine – the poetic lightness which tempers the psychological darkness – Williams seems to be wanting to rescue “a play that doesn’t need rescuing, while the play’s textual strengths and emotions are made remote and uneven […] by flashy ‘look-at-me’ directorial interventions.” True, nights and dreams need darkness, but true darkness is often in the mind of the audience, the other vital ingredient in theatre and without whom you wouldn’t have theatre at all; for all Williams’ tricks and affects, he seems to alienate or, at worst, forget about the audience, and this is ultimately to the production’s detriment.

As Flaherty wrote (and I’m paraphrasing slightly here), magic in the Dream should not be imposed by a director, but should be organically generated from [the] Bottom up. Unfortunately this isn’t the case here.

Where’s Robin when you need him to restore amends?

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