Left – Amber McMahon. Cover – The cast. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti
Undoubtedly a testament to Shakespeare’s capacity to create memorable characters in even minor roles, The Popular Mechanicals is, much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a “parallel play” that extrapolates further adventures between the scenes of the Bard’s work. Taking Bottom the weaver and his fellow gormless tradies with dreams of amateur theatrical stardom, playwrights Keith Robinson and Tony Taylor imagine what they got up to between the scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In particular, Robinson and Taylor make the altogether logical assumption that this troupe of would-be actors would require a new leading man, once Bottom is transformed by fairies (offstage) into a donkey-headed creature. Cue the arrival of Master Mowldie, a professional actor full of bluster, panache, but most of all, a great deal of wine. In a bid to impress their prospective new recruit, these rustic players perform some very ribald material, only to find he has passed out drunk. Various other shenanigans ensue, including the much-resisted performance of Snug the Joiner’s favourite act, ominously titled “That”… the rather gobsmacking nature of which I cannot possibly spoil for the uninitiated.
Ultimately though, The Popular Mechanicals really isn’t about plot so much as gags, and it has these in abundance. A kind of deliriously energetic homage to vaudeville, clowning, bad puns and sight-gags, the play is overflowing as though a veritable cornucopia of variety-theatre humour. The script is extremely funny, dipping in and out of the Shakespearean idiom, much as it does Shakespeare’s canonical text, yet achieves this without ever feeling inconsistent. The anachronisms of telephone calls and modern phrasing juxtaposed with a song about how awful it was to live in Tudor England all feel as part of the larger anarchic whole.
However, the script is only as good as those staging it, and fortunately this revival is overseen by talented director Sarah Giles, who marshals a fantastic cast of some of our best comedic actors. The drily hilarious Lori Bell provides much of the musical accompaniment as Tom Snout, radiating a wry, winking knowingness that bleeds through her characterisation. Rory Walker excels in the difficult job of playing long-suffering director Peter Quince as the closest thing the company has to a straight man. Julie Forsythe as Robin Starveling and Tim Overton as Francis Flute fill in the mid-range of the group’s more introverted personae, as their characters hilariously struggle with their roles in rehearsal.
Charles Mayer pulls double duty as Bottom and, in his prolonged absence due to the here-offstage events of Shakespeare’s play, also takes the part of Mowldie. Ironically, while Bottom is by far the largest role amongst the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since all his scenes with Titania are not depicted here he actually has on balance the smallest role in this play. As the drunkard luvvie Mowldie he spends much of his stage time passively watching the others, whilst impressively imbibing an absurd quantity of cask wine. Mayer nonetheless is indisputably an equal star of the show, making a great impact doubling as these dual blustering roles.
The MVP award goes to the utterly hilarious Amber McMahon as Snug. It’s a little hard to describe exactly what it is she does which is so uproariously funny, but as the character with probably the least number of lines it is largely conveyed in her off-kilter, oft-times downright bizarre physicality and goggle-eyed leering facial expressions. All the actors in the cast deserve high praise for adding a lot to the existing text via their strong characterisation and skillfully-executed sight-gags, but as the often silent, sometimes venal, and mostly blithely self-confident idiot savant of the group, McMahon’s rendition of Snug is unreservedly brilliant in its relentlessly unexpected tics and flourishes.
Whether you’re a Shakespeare buff or just love a good laugh at some extremely enthusiastic stage comedy that executes finely-tuned slapstick and wordplay in equal measure, The Popular Mechanicals is not to be missed.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
A State Theatre Company South Australia production
The Popular Mechanicals
by Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare and Tony Taylor
Director: Sarah Giles
Venue: Wharf 2 Theatre
Dates: 6 April – 13 May 2017
Tickets: $55 – $49
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au