Left – Ray Chong Nee and Julie Forsyth. Cover – Nicki Shiels, Johnny Carr, Lucy Honigman and Gareth Reeves. Photo – Lisa Tomasetti
This version of Midsummer Night’s Dream from Bell Shakespeare is shortened in title (and in actual length) to The Dream, giving a new weight to the comic elements of the play (and the play within the play). The production opens with the group of ‘Mechanicals’, a motley and idiosyncratic theatre troupe in the midst of creating a performance for the wedding of Duke Theseus. The cast members double up (with the exception of the extraordinary Julie Forsyth as Puck) as fairies, aristocrats and players, giving the actors a chance to show off their comic as well as dramatic chops. Forsyth as Puck is hilarious, gender-bending and goblin-like, her singular whispery voice perfectly suited to the role. This Puck is a muscular mischief maker who thrills at the mayhem she creates. She’s not in the least sorry for the human pain caused as a result of mistaken identity and you get a strong sense she’d like to go even further.
Ray Chong Nee is rather magnificent and compelling on stage as Theseus and Oberon. He’s got a superb voice and uses it beautifully. Janine Watson’s Hippolyta seems underwhelmed by her impending marriage; her Titania is likewise currently less than enamoured of her fairy husband, Oberon, who is insisting she hand over her toy boy. Watson excels at the fleeting yet tellingly expressive glance. Nicki Shiels is fabulous as poor put-upon Helena; she gets some of the best lines and really knows how to play up the abject state the character finds herself in. Bottom is played by Richard Piper, a memorable and commandingly funny turn. He takes over the stage every time he opens his mouth. Demetrius is played by Johnny Carr, Lysander by Gareth Reeves and a feisty Hermia is delivered by Lucy Honigman. All are very fine.
The set is nicely understated and muted with an overhanging wooden structure doing duty as ceilings and as a woodland thicket. The set alludes to the darkness under the story; although The Dream plays out as light-hearted, the actual tale of the mismatched lovers is not – poor Hermia faces possible death if she defies her father – and real mischief is wrought by pre-fairy tale elemental creatures. The design of this production plays up the pagan wildness of the otherworldly indelicate characters. These fairies are elementals of the dark, glimmering with an essential wildness, no wreaths of dainty spring flowers feature here. Bottom receives the most sinister looking ass’s head from Puck.
The final scene of the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is almost too delicious in its comedy; it really is funny. This condensed version of the play works beautifully, nothing is lost and much is gained. If you’ve got someone in your life who thinks they don’t ‘get’ Shakespeare, or someone who is yet to see a live performance, then take them to this.
Bell Shakespeare presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Peter Evans
Venue: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 18 September – 4 October 2014