A Midsummer Nights DreamHaving seen at least a dozen productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s particularly pleasing to get something different. Usually this means Athens morphs into the Raj, or the forest is made of shag-pile, or the faeries get depicted as derros. While playing Shakespeare outdoors is nothing new (particularly for AMND) you’re unlikely to find a more delightful and appropriate a venue than Castlecrag’s Haven Amphitheatre.

With lingering twilight in the early scenes giving way to night in parallel to the play’s narrative, one is given the rare treat of having the four hapless Lovers traipsing around an actual forest (well, the bush). Nothing quite adds a sense of reality to a “night in the woods” like a diegetic thrum of real cicadas. At one point a chorus of kookaburras struck up, as if perfectly on cue to provide a fanfare for Titania’s entrance!

The production itself is very stripped-back, in line with RAW-EM’s ethos of simplicity and intensity, giving the actors full range to leap about and really play to the back rows. And some of them certainly did. Undoubtedly the most arresting performance was that of Blair Cutting’s Oberon which, simply put, he played VERY BIG. At first it seemed like Cutting was playing a pantomime Richard III instead, but his bombastic interpretation really grew on me and was a thoroughly refreshing take on Oberon compared to the sneery, David Bowie-esque portrayals one typically sees.

Perhaps director Berynn Schwerdt was striving to make all the Faerie characters outré compared to the more naturalistic Athenians whose performance in turn become broader as they enter the forest and become more akin to the Faeries themselves. If this was the intent however, it didn’t quite hold, as the bumbling Mechanicals were (necessarily) also very broad from the outset, as was Julie McKay who rather incongruously overplayed her desperate-and-dateless Helena from the outset, particularly compared to the other Lovers’ comic arcs.

Casting ebullient American Katherine Cohn as Puck was an odd choice, as was the decision to market the play around her. Perhaps exaggerated by the dissonance of her American accent, she seemed to struggle with the verse at times (as did Jools Montague as Titania/Hippolyta), although Cohn more than made up for it with her spunky, cartwheeling performance and dynamic interaction with Oberon.

Probably the most unusual feature of this production is that the Lovers are doubled as both the Mechanicals and Titania’s Faerie retinue. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Lovers’ parts doubled before, let alone trebled. It actually worked quite well, with Rob Gibson breaking free of his preppy Demetrius to become goofily earnest as Tom Snout and unexpectedly beefcakey as Moth. Jennifer Davis was charming and hilarious as the put-upon Hermia and equally funny as the timid Snug, who comes into his own when playing Pyramus & Thisbe’s Lion, spluttering from his costume’s mane of feathers.

The stand-out performance of the evening was surely Matt Whaley as Lysander, who also transformed into the campy Cobweb (in an often-cut scene) and then brought the house down with Francis Flute’s side-splitting rendition of Thisbe. Particular praise also goes to Brett Nevill who gave a star turn in the small and sometimes thankless roles of Egeus and Peter Quince, making the bitter patriarch genuinely fearsome and the ocker director with stage fright delightful.

The downside of this extra doubling was the awkward necessity to abridge two scenes in an otherwise more-complete-than-average performance text. The iconic Faerie scene with Bottom in Titania’s bed lacked her retainers as they were stuck “sleeping” on the other side of the stage in their Athenian roles. More problematic was the absence of the Lovers from attending the performance of Pyramus & Thisbe, depriving the scene of their comments from the peanut gallery and giving the impression that the central characters simply disappear at the end of the play.

As the comedic Mechanicals the ensemble was lively throughout, with Daniel Cordeaux’s Bottom an effective lynchpin. I’ve always longed for a production that would give Bottom a notionally “traditional” full ass’ head upon his transformation, yet knowing full well why it’s usually avoided. Well, I finally got what I wanted, but it just confirmed my suspicion; a full-head mask just too limiting, robbing the endearing Cordeaux of his ability to properly emote. I still believe it could be achieved, perhaps with an actor versed in Commedia dell'arte, but it was not to be for this show.

All in all, this is a highly enjoyable production. If you only like seeing Shakespeare once in a blue moon, then come and sit under one, because this production won’t disappoint.

RAW-EM Theatre Co
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare

Venue: The Haven Amphitheatre, Castlecrag
Dates: 23, 24, 25 February and 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 March
Time: 7.30pm – a shuttle bus operates from 6.30pm
Bookings: RogerPage & Partners, 100 Edinburgh Road, Castlecrag or 9958 0124 (business hours)
Tickets: Adults are $30, concession cardholders $25, students $20 and children under 12 are free.  Groups of 6, get 1 ticket free. A scrumptious supper is also available.

For further information, please visit www.thehaven.com.au