It begins with a touch, it ends with a touch. Winterfall Theatre's revamped and multi-faceted version of A Midsummer Nights Dream is a fascinating, in-your-face deconstruction and wild romp of Shakespeare's supernatural comedy that has it's audiences bemused one moment and contemplative the next.
Located within The Theatre Husk, a refurbished factory, there's no denying the immediate sense of intimacy created in this small production. The set, cleverly constructed by Ashlee Hughes is minimalistic in the black box theatre employed. Consisting of a long and narrow white, un-raised stage and red decorative branches hung above, with a white cloth screen separating backstage from the audience's view, cast members are able to manipulate it and additional set pieces brought on, without much hassle. Audience members are seated right up to the edge of the stage, creating a sense of integration with the play itself. This much should be warned – the experience is a full-on one, and eye contact or even physical contact may be made; the audience becomes part of the show. The actors, to some surprise, emerge from the wings to make small talk with theatre-goers. Steven Fleiner (in the multiple roles of Snug, Cobweb and Philostrate) explains that this an action they've been instructed to do by their Globe-trained director (Trent Baker). The theatre, as it was seen in Elizabethan times, is an area of communal experience and escapism and therefore it stands to reason that there should be no distinction between actors or audience. All pretence or dream-like state are cast away, and the integration is made seamless in our acknowledgement of the faces behind the facade.
It's clear great deliberation and thought has been put into the execution of this homage to Peter Brook's (Royal Shakespeare Company) 1970 Midsummer Night's Dream. Director Baker's International Fellowship of Shakespeare's Globe and previous direction of As You Like It (Winterfall) is clear. His salute is calculated and comprehensible. Characters remain dressed in theatre blacks and whites, and changes or the appointing of roles are down before the audience's eyes. The movement of performers in and out of the audience (with the performer of Puck briefly stealing this reviewer's notepad and then returning it, both times in character) and surrounding space strips the play of detachment. However at times, players disappear upon stage or cannot be made out or followed, thus rendering the scene somewhat lacking. On a whole, the modernisation is cleverly done, and the meaning conveyed through artful touches. Light vignettes and musical numbers are interspersed throughout; the cast chatter amongst themselves, reading lines and names in a disjointed fashion out of exercise books and scripts scattered about the place, appointing character roles and at times, comically squabbling over them. A powerful rendition of Talking Head's 'Road to Nowhere' demonstrates the casts strength as vocalists as well as providing a motif of intrigue, uncertainty, unreality, and that of a story about to unfold. Clever sound and light design (by Baker and Rebecca Etchell respectively) infuse the at times too-familiar play with moments of ethereality, the sprinkling of love juice or recollection of a tale backed by fairy-like music, or the shadow puppeting of a scene briefly reminding the audience of the fiction and mystique of the play as well as acting as a subtle nod to Shakespeare's oft-used play-within-a-play technique. The audience is similarly amused by the littering of sassy modern day relationship dynamics. For example, Lysander's (Wil Ridley) portrayal of the whipped, asthma-ridden lover left with the smaller bed is relatable; his want to share Hermia's (Michelle France) bed cleverly re-imagined an extra touch in this scenario. Similarly Helena's (Chloe Reid) vicious pursuit of Demetrius (Jack Arren Starkey-Gil) ups the antics, with her saucy shimmering and all-but-straddling him – a power-dynamic reversal in comparison to previous pious portrayals – that has the crowd in stitches.
Each cast member is a powerhouse; put together, they're dynamite. They work seamlessly together and their three months of preparation can be seen, as is demonstrated in the opening few minutes of their intense chatter and their easy glide into song. The physicality of the entire cast must be praised too – they hold their own focus and intensity, and rarely is anything done without deliberation. At times the only setback is the strength of this, with the audience's attention scattered across the long stage to each similarly dynamic performer; focus is occasionally lost due to the attraction of each singular performer in such an open space, and could be clarified. Each gain their own stand-out moment, however particular mention must be made of Alex Duncan in the role of Bottom. Duncan is at times, almost too suave and effortlessly charming as the self-assured actor and ass. He meshes with the role, oozing talent in physical comedy and a natural affinity for Shakespeare's nuanced language, as well as acting as a ludicrously good example of feigned bad acting. He is yet able to develop a tremulous and uncertain vulnerability to his character in a key soliloquy that shows thought has been placed upon a potentially two-dimensional character. His praises alone cannot be sung; to see his performance is to understand the positive critique heaped upon him. His supporting troupe of 'actors' demonstrate their own key strengths, switching from fairy to actor to assigned role, the differences between each palpable. Jack Angwin as Flute/Mustardseed must be praised, and is certainly a name to follow. Manly and upright, even potentially conservative as Flute, his dramatic transformation into the role of overly feminine Thrisby, determinedly held falsetto and all, is one given to great reception. Fellow role-switcher Tim Wotherspoon (Egeus/Quince) carries off his dual roles; his nervous agitation as Quince, frequent popping on and off stage to correct lines or remedy horrendous moments in his wedding play, are subtle moments of humour that thrill.
Lily Fish as Puck is yet another one to watch. A sinister and yet strangely beguiling narrator and mischief maker, her physicality is murmured about in the crowd. The image of something a little batty, her outfit of too-large trousers and mussed hair, she never once loses that playful, animalistic, and somewhat tormented depiction of a usually male role. Tiny on stage, she nonetheless captures and is an omnipresent existence, puppeting and conducting the characters, almost without their having any say. The lovestruck couples also throw their weight into the ring of talented performers. France plays Hermia in all her headstrong tendencies and yet remaining virtue with a certain wilifulness, against the potentially over-eager and emotional Helena, as depicted by Chloe Reid. Both actresses demonstrate amazing propensity to shift from vehement, moralistic indignation and fiery rage to meaningless moments of grief. Beside them, lovers Lysander and Demetrius (Ridley and Arren Starkey-Gil) dazzle in physical comedy and energy in their shift from spurned or heart-wrung lover to boisterous, comically flirtatious and overeager pursuers. Their raunchy and overblown displays of affection appear hilariously real, and while at times may threaten to overpower other actors, are equally matched.
On a whole, the play remains a riotous and riveting gem – one certainly worthy of a re-watch, if not for the sheer talent of the actors and their ability to shift from serious thought to comedy, than for the beautiful and elaborate staging. The question that remains to be asked at the ends of such an unbarred performance though, the sense so masterfully created in Puck's closing remarks and continued puppeting of characters, is; what is the dream? What have we been told, or is the story still occurring?
Winterfall Theatre presents
A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Trent Baker
Venue: The Theatre Husk | 161A Heidelberg Rd Northcote
Dates: 9 – 25 Mar 2012
Tickets: $30 – $20