PLAYFUL, HEART-WARMING, RIDDLED WITH EXCELLENCE
A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM
by William Shakespeare
directed by Colin McColl & Ben Crowder
Auckland Theatre Company
at Maidment, Auckland
From 3 May 2012 to 26 May 2012
Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 6 May 2012
The opening night of Auckland Theatre Company's fine production of A Midsummer Night's Dream coincided with the largest full moon in a long time and an absolutely cloudless, star-filled sky. Somehow the two went magically together.
The moon – its appearance, non appearance and re-appearance – are, of course, at the heart of the play's discourse, and the ‘stars' are certainly out at the Maidment as well, both on stage and in the audience.
A Midsummer Night Dream is without doubt Shakespeare's best known and most studied play. Children are introduced to it at a young age, students of all ages study it, films have been made of it and it's difficult to imagine a venue worth its salt that hasn't housed a production or two over the years. It's done indoors, outdoors and, no doubt, in some lady's chamber. Possibly even the chamber of Queen Elizabeth the First herself, as the play has a full running time of two hours which suggests it may have been written for the court, but we have no proof of this.
It would seem from the topical references within the text that the bard wrote it somewhere in the early to mid 1590's but again we have no proof so ‘let that go'.
Unlike many of his plays, A Midsummer Night Dream has no known source but it's pretty clear Shakespeare had a finger on the pulse of European folklore when it came to fairies – in particular woodland sprites – and had read Chaucer's The Knight's Tale where he would have encountered Theseus and Hippolyta in guises similar to that which he would use himself.
An appreciative opening night full house and the fact that 2,500 students are already booked to see this production should confirm that the play has lost none of its original charm.
Colin McColl, Artistic Director of Auckland Theatre Company and co-director of this production with Ben Crowder, reminds us in his programme note that Sir Peter Brook said ‘play is play'. He goes on to add that this philosophy has underpinned the rehearsal process used in this production. Brook should know. as his seminal, 1970, Sally Jacobs-designed production changed the course of English theatre and, as New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes noted, would ‘exert a major influence on the contemporary stage'. It's clearly still doing so – and more strength to its collective, and aging, arm.
In the current economic climate – who said climate change isn't real? – Auckland could be considered fortunate to have a professional theatre company at all, let alone one capable of staging an amalgam of exciting modern works and great classical plays. For many modern companies staging a Shakespeare is too great a challenge, so having a company with the courage and the vision to have a bash at The Bard is really rather special and we would be wise to appreciate it.
Auckland is doubly fortunate in that this admirably-led company seems to go from strength to strength, which is not to say that everything they do pleases (nor should it) or is pleasing (thank goodness) but that their hit rate must definitely be applauded.
It could be said that McColl, in co directing with the inventive Ben Crowder, was taking a risk but it was a calculated risk as there is no better play to ‘play' with than Shakespeare's immortal Dream and many of us remember that he'd explored it's possibilities before. So while it might have been seen as risky, it was less so than it might have seemed.
The success of ‘playful' productions lies only in part with the directors because if the actors aren't able to engage with the process, then the results can be dire. Crowder gives credit to his actors in the informative programme and well he might because they are mighty good. There is an equanimity that is palpable, even when the experience of the performers might be a tad uneven, and this is very hard to achieve.
At the heart of this production – and giving it heart – is the inimitable Raymond Hawthorne as Robin Goodfellow, the Puck. This is sublime casting. Hawthorne is described in the programme as ‘the doyen of Auckland's theatre professionals.' His ‘decades of experience' are also mentioned.*
It doesn't seem to matter what facet of the performing arts Hawthorne is engaged in, he manages, through his passion and his craft, to create magical art, and his Puck is no exception.
Excellent though Hawthorne is, it's not all about him. Nor would he ever say it was.
The creative team of Tony Rabbit (set and lighting designer), Nic Smillie (costume design) and John Gibson (composition and sound design) have manufactured a platform from which Shakespeare's play can live and breathe. Its simplicity belies a deep understanding of the journey this production takes and allows McColl and Crowder to deviate from the traditional in their search for truth.
The set, reminiscent of a Swedish sauna with its smooth, vertical timber slats and raised horizon, is both attractive and effective, and the actors use it with imagination and ease.
The costumes are wonderful, clever and purposeful, funny and functional.
Gibson's music is, as always, challenging and rich and he and Brett Adams, who delivers some splendid guitar and quirky special effects, work sublimely well together.
Shakespeare was pretty good at saying what he wanted to say, so cutting and repositioning his text to serve another end is always laden with complexity. The cuts and rearrangements in this production are judicious and they mostly work.
As already noted, Hawthorne is fabulous as the Puck. Also, as already noted, he's no spring chicken. Casting a mature actor, one of Hawthorne's years, could be seen as a risk. Puck might seem to be young, dynamic. He does, after all, have to credibly "put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes." He does more than a smidgen of coming and going, all said and done, and this might well suggest a youngish, speedy sort of dude. But wait … cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Hawthorne is superb. In a performance full of chirpy naughtiness and magic, Hawthorne plays bare-chested. Looking for all the world like a 1960s bovver boy, thumb hooked into trouser pocket, arms akimbo, he zips through the play like a slightly sinister dervish.
There are delicious elements of this production that ache to be mentioned but I will resist the temptation out of a desire not to spoil the experience for you.
And there are world class performances.
Hawthorne, of course, but also Stuart Devenie's particularly curmudgeonly Egeus, whose exceptional delivery of the text at times took my breath away. Devenie is the master of laughs and he got them all with this exquisitely drawn portrait.
Andrew Grainger's munificent Bottom is well worth a second look. Like Hawthorne and Devenie, Grainger has a fine grip on the language and his comic timing throughout is quite simply brilliant. Grainger's performance, first as Bottom the Weaver and then as Pyramus the lover, is a masterclass in slapstick and as good as you'll see anywhere.
In some ways it's unfair to pick anyone out because this is truly an ensemble production but the lovers, the delectable Laurel Devenie (Helena) and the equally gorgeous Brooke Williams (Hermia) are skilfully matched up with the scrumptious Josh McKenzie (Lysander) and the striking Jono Kenyon (Demetrius). Opening night saw this quartet of darlings a trifle slow to start but once they hit their straps they were as sexy, as funny and as physically articulate as anyone could wish.
Rima Te Wiata, always a favourite, etched out a subtle and supportive Peta Quince and provided a powerhouse component to the vocals.
It seems fair to say that Crowder and McColl have consciously stayed away from the dark side in producing this work. They flag this in the programme with talk about keeping things playful, inventive and fluid for as long as possible and they have trimmed the text accordingly.
It works a treat and achieves the goal of playfulness but tends to short-change the roles of Oberon (Xavier Horan) and Titania (Alison Bruce) by removing some of the sinister symmetry that exists between them and their mortal counterparts, Theseus (Peter Daube) and his bride Hippolyta (Goretti Chadwick).
Highlights of the evening – and there are plenty – are the wonderfully physical fights between the lovers, 'Bottom's Dream', the lunacy of Pyramus and Thisbe (Brett O'Gorman) and the play within the play, culminating, as it always does, with the riotously funny death of Pyramus.
For me, though, the evening belongs to Hawthorne the magician, with special mention of two wonderful moments: the first when Puck crushes the herb onto the sleeping lover's eyes with "Jack shall have Jill; nought shall go ill" and the second when he asks the audience to "give me your hands, if we be friends" and the theatre erupts.
I suspect these moments will resonate with me for long enough.
Experience this production if, for no other reason than it achieves what it sets out to achieve. No hempen home-spuns here. It's playful, heart-warming, riddled with excellence and at the centre of it all is a man who can create real moments of theatrical magic.
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*I first saw Hawthorne in Ngaio Marsh's A Unicorn for Christmas staged by the New Zealand Players when I was a child in the mid 1950's. Well, it did say decades! Hawthorne was in his late teens and preparing to leave New Zealand to study at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, on a New Zealand Government Bursary. I wonder if such a thing still exists today?
My next meeting with Hawthorne was in 1976 when I attended a breathtaking performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream by his Theatre Corporate company in their Galatos Street Theatre. This was followed on the same evening by a second Hawthorne production, an equally dazzling pastiche of Beatles material entitled Another Side of the Beatles'. Does anyone remember late night theatre?
I was fortunate enough to tour with the company that year and, as a wide-eyed groupie, I saw these productions many times. They remain in my memory – along with The Beggar's Opera – as among the best works I have ever seen.
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