Written by Tony Taylor and Keith Robinson and originally directed by Geoffrey Rush at the Belvoir Street Theatre in 1987, The Popular Mechanicals is a hilarious romp with the supporting characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, putting centre-stage the familiar Nick Bottom and his fellow tradesmen (aka “mechanicals”) and their misadventures in amateur theatrics. Using most of the characters’ existing lines from Dream, the authors have built up a larger “between-the-scenes” narrative that posits what kind of antics the mechanicals were getting up to when they’re offstage in Shakespeare’s play, especially during the period Bottom is away with Titania.
Indeed, much of the play deals with the period between Bottom becoming transformed (offstage, with some donkey-head shadow puppetry) and his eventual reappearance, and what his companions do while trying to cope with the disappearance of their leading man.
This is a joyously raucous play that doesn’t attempt to capture an accurately Shakespearean turn of phrase so much as taking the characters and running with them in all manner of crazy, unexpected directions. It is rough, hammy and crude, in fact it’s outright obscene on a fairly frequent basis, but all in the very best of fun. Its lashings of scatological and sexual humour mix with healthy doses of clowning, vaudeville, farce, wordplay both high and low-brow, moments of grotesquery and constant assaults on the fourth wall that everything fuses into one grubby, delightfully unhinged carnival.
Opening with a song both decrying and celebrating live audiences as “the monster in the dark”, the script is very much a celebration of theatre itself. By focusing on and expanding the story of Shakespeare’s famously inept would-be actors, Robinson and Taylor poke fun at the world of theatre both overtly and stylistically, taking us on something of a magical mystery tour of comedic theatrical techniques including slapstick, stand-up comedy, musical theatre, broad farce, puppetry and more besides.
A pleasing element is that this production has not only embraced the script’s wide net of energetic theatrical styles, but has also added a lot of its own voice to the piece, through a sprinkling of new, updated asides and references and, one suspects, a fair amount of improvisation during the rehearsal process yielding unscripted comedic gems that have remained in the show. Director Darren Gilshenan deserves considerable credit for having managed these many elements so expertly, his experience with performing in similarly hilarious shows for Bell Shakespeare clearly serving him well.
Another aspect contributing to this production’s strongly cohesive approach that draws together its many disparate elements is the superb production design. With a richly detailed, vertiginous set and striking, intricate costumes (and hair and make-up), this show is also something of a triumph for the production team, looking like some kind of demented collaboration between the aesthetics of Terry Gilliam and Barrie Kosky. Indeed, it is an excellent collaboration between its two designers to achieve such a unified style. The set and numerous props by Lucilla Smith are exceptional, and are coupled with the brilliantly outlandish costumes drawn up by Michael Hankin, each one managing to look unique yet coming from the same wacky universe. Various visual components perfectly express each role and their respective profession, making a significant contribution to characterisation.
A show like this very much rests on the energy and skill of its cast, and this production displays some of the cream of NIDA’s graduating year. Each of the six performers is excellent and they function very well as an ensemble, always knowing when to go for their moment in the limelight or to set up a gag for their castmate. Ben Vigers is endearing as Snug, perhaps the biggest idiot in this motley assortment of morons, while Bonnie Sveen has perhaps the least showy role in Robin Starveling yet still gets plenty of the big laughs. Laurence Brewer appears at times to channel past performances of director Gilshenan himself, in a marvellously nervous rendition of Peter Quince.
Anthony Taufa plays a very good Bottom, but really excels in his other role (being the only cast member to double) as the outrageously over-the-top Ralph Mowldie, a pompous, washed-up old star of the stage and a total raging alcoholic, complete with a vomit-stained ruff.
Perhaps the most persistently eye-catching performances came from the two genderbending roles. Brett Rodgers frequently steals the scene as the hilariously selfconscious and erratic Francis Flute, a highly strung, effeminate transvestite (err… it seems), styled in an overblown mélange of goth, punk, emo and the like, constantly seeking attention but not always pleased with the results. Rodgers’ antics and meticulously-realised persona are both utterly hilarious and strangely intriguing, especially noting that he does not break character at the curtain call.
As Tom Snout the tinker we have a similarly extreme by wholly different performance by Jacinta Acevski as feral, androgynous wild-child with a huge mane of hair and a seemingly uncontrollable twitchy vigour that borders on psychosis. Bubbling with an almost frightening energy and unpredictability, overflowing with strange facial ticks and loopy non-sequiturs, Acevski’s tremendously memorable characterisation is like some kind of demented Loony Toons character come to life. On crack.
The Popular Mechanicals is not only a beautifully conceptualised, extremely well put-together production with a terrific cast, it is also an absolutely gut-busting laugh riot.
THE POPULAR MECHANICALS
by Keith Robinson and Tony Taylor
Directed by Darren Gilshenan
Venue: Parade Playhouse
Dates: 31 March - 4 April
Bookings: 1300 795 012 or www.ticketek.com.au