A Midsummer Night's Dream is among the best imagined, structured and written of Shakespeare's early plays. Probably premiering around the same time as Romeo and Juliet in the mid-1590s, little is known of its origins, though it could have been commissioned for a celebrity wedding. Strangely it did not attract much serious attention until the early 20th century when Max Reinhardt revealed its delightful blend of fun and high imagination.
The main story is of four young lovers whose desires are cruelly seized upon by two groups of adults. Initially it's their parents at court who concoct a range of spirit-crushing demands. When the quartet flee to the freedom of the forest, they find themselves teased and emotions further manipulated by the parallel parent figures of Titania and Oberon, king and queen of the fairies.
Other characters, including Oberon's servant, the often air-born Puck, and base Bottom – one of a group of humble 'mechanicals' attempting to put on a playlet of their own – not only feature, but are among Shakespeare's best loved characters. This is a play created by a writer hitting his first peak. It is joyful, inventive, flashy, charming – indeed, a faultless show-and-tell of Shakespeare's youthful genius.
After the disciplinary constraints of The Art of War, the Sydney Theatre's elite Actors' Company has been given greater freedom in fashioning this production. From start to finish, movement flows like a river. And everyone in the cast has had to find their inner fairy - all on tippy-toes - with Peter Carroll's flighty ballet-beginner probably the most amusing.
The production has been co-directed by London-based team Edward Dick and movement specialist Jane Gibson, who both worked on the outstanding Cheek By Jowl production of Othello that toured here in 2004
Now that we have got to know something of the personalities of the individual players who compose the STC troupe, it wasn't too difficult to anticipate the casting. Of the five younger members, it is a delight to see Martin Blum (Demetrius), Eden Falk (Lysander), Amber McMahon (Helena) and Hayley McElhinney (Hermia) cast as the quartet of romantically entwined friends. They fit their roles well, and work wonderfully together playing tag through the forest scenes.
It was easy to anticipate graceful Dan Spielman playing Puck; and hefty, idiosyncratic Colin Moody play Bottom. Elders Peter Carroll and John Gaden honour the court with their 'gravitas' (that current idiotic buzz-word), mucking up as Mechanicals and teetering around as fairies who clearly never age. Pamela Rabe is at her most regal as a haughty and disenchanted Hippolyta, while her Titania takes a slightly more bawdy line. Brandon Burke's Theseus and Oberon do not fit well with this production.
Rabe and Burke created a magnificent partnership in The Season At Sarsaparilla, the intimacy and depth of feeling quite astounding. Not much of that here. While the dark rendition of the marriage of Hippolyta and Theseus works well; the absence of any affection to underpin the fun and games of the fairy royals, Titania and Oberon, is really quite odd.
Burke looks a little like he has been shoe-horned into his roles as the last actor left standing; with little cultivation of Oberon's pansexuality.
One major strand of the plot is triggered by Titania's discovery that Oberon has found himself a beautiful boy lover from the Indes. We may not need to see the boy child, often represented. But there is little intimate in the relationship between Oberon and his servant Puck either. And there is nil romance, even outside quarrel, between this Oberon and his queen. Quite strange the whole thing.
Questions also hover over the Mechanicals. While the cast have come up with delightful characterisations, and their initial arrival a staging highlight, their 'amateur' production of Pyramus and Thisbe, when we get to it, is oddly predictable. It's a pity, after mountains of thoughtful and artful invention throughout the course of the evening that we are proffered so predictable and commonplace a wedding nuptial.
In fairness, we notice these faulty sequences only because the overall production is so very good, crowded with visual beauty, theatrical invention and dramatic interest. While director Edward Dick expresses gratitude in the program for having the chance to work with an ensemble and an extended rehearsal period, one gets the feeling another week or two might have helped.
The production's strength? Set designer Ralph Myers creates in his abandoned and damaged Georgian domestic interior an environment that allows for seamless shifts from one locale to the next. Physical realities really do merge 'as if in a dream'. Costume designer, Tess Schofield's work ranges from haute couture with a Spanish touch in the court (the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta is clearly political), to outfits of great vernacular wit for the Mechanicals. A note to be made here of Helen Thompson's 'Peta' Quince, whose charge it is to direct the Mechanicals' playlet: sweet, deft work indeed. And also, the guest appearance of composer Alan John as Flute - such a wonderful Flute, a pity John is not encouraged to do more with his Thisbe.
Myers' set gives the directors what they mainly want: it is here in this single setting, painted with great variations of light, colour and even rain, on an earthen floor, that the directorial team lay their high cards on the table: this stage world is exotic, timeless and fluid. The action flows magnificently. Max Lyandvert's music contributes another sustained layer of magic.
One overriding concern remains. The acoustic problems of the Sydney Theatre. It is hard to imagine that actors of such experience have problems speaking verse clearly. In fact, from discussions in the foyer it seems that aural clarity largely depends on where one is seated.
Myers must have been aware of a problem that is other designers have already had to confront with various degrees of success. His single room not only allows the director's vision to flourish, the flat back wall and rounded ceiling must have been also designed to throw voices forward. Yet, one still struggles to hear the words. This is a pity for a play conceived by Shakespeare to be enjoyed with minimal effort. Ideally, with an arm around a neighbour's shoulder and a pewter cup of celebratory wine in hand. A dog under the table mawing on a capon's leg.
Sydney Theatre Company
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Venue: Sydney Theatre
Previews: 16 August – 20 August 2007
Opening Night: 21 August 2007
Season: 21 August – 8 September 2007
Times: Mondays at 6:30pm, Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm
Matinees: Wednesday matinee at 12:15pm (except at 5 Sept 1pm), Saturday matinee at 2pm, Thursday 23 August at 12:15pm
Tickets: $73/ $60 concession Matinee $65/$54 concession
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 / sydneytheatre.com.au