A Midsummer Night’s Dream (La Boite Theatre Company)
La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre
February 11 – March 7
Arguably Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” tells the story of four star-crossed lovers, the coming nuptials of a duke and duchess, a growing feud in the land of the fairies, and the comedic antics of a theatre troupe. Add a magical forest to the mix and you have the makings of a delightful show. But unless you are familiar with the text and eager to see a bold, dark interpretation of the play, this might not be the show for you.
Immediately, it is clear that this is far from a traditional realisation of the classic comedy. Audiences won’t be seeing a forest, for there are no trees. Rather, the detailed set gives the play a new location in a kitschy 1970s suburban home. There are no (visible) magic fairies and while there is a Puck, it is not the mischievous, quick–witted sprite of Shakespeare’s traditional text. Instead, he is reimaged as a disembodied voice Poltergeistically conveyed through a flickering television.
These are daring textual changes, from a Benjamin Schostakowski, a director who has never feared brave choices, for although there is little character development in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and no true protagonist, critics generally point to Puck as the most important character in the play. Puck’s whimsical spirit, magical fancy, fun-loving humour, and lovely, evocative language are lost in his technological reincarnation. And the forest is integral to the story, both in terms of setting and scenes, creating a dark, wild, mysterious atmosphere in which the magical elements of Shakespeare’s plot can be played out; to lose it, denies the play one of the central elements of its fantastical atmosphere.
Surely one of the ambitions of adaptation should be increased accessibility. And while emphasis and pause bring a modern sensibilty to dialogue delivery, this alone, is not enough. The plot is very important in Shakespeare’s comedies given their typical convoluted, twisted and confusing natures. However, having just six actors perform 14 roles, (complete with many a dodgy wig), using the play’s original Elizabethan dialogue, makes for an unclear start, especially to audience members unfamiliar with the play’s multiple plots.
Many Shakespeare devices are still evident, apothecary intervention, cross dressing and a play within a play and there is much humour in the Act Five realisation of the Pyramus and Thisbe story by the crew of incompetent amateur actors. The Act Three farcical scene of Helena (Emily Burton) chiding Hermia (Kathryn Marquet), and Lysander (Kieran Law) and Demetrius (Pacharo Mzembe) ready to fight one another for Helena’s love, is full of hilarity, but its over-the-top physicality unnecessarily detracts from humour of a script that already includes puns, metaphors, and insults to provoke thoughtful laughter.
As Helena, Burton bring her role to glorious life, in every aspect, especially through her engaging soliloquies. And Law is an enthusiastic Bottom, inhabiting the physically of his various guises with impressive commitment. Christen O’Leary (initially unrecognisable in tragic wig) is wonderful when as the nymph Titania, but is ultimately underutilised.
Indeed, on paper, this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has all the ingredients for success – an accomplished ensemble cast, a talented director and expert sound and lighting designers in Wil Hughes and Jason Glenwright, yet something, it seems it still missing (beyond just Puck). Freaky, funny, chaotic and confusing, this is a dream unlike any other, typical of Schostakowski’s quirky genius and delicious darkness and there are many people who will admire it accordingly. And traditionalist bias aside, this can only be seen as a good thing, for it highlights how Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry still has the power to entertain, move and enthral us in such a variety of ways.