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BWW REVIEW: Sydney Theatre Company Puts A Contemporary Twist On Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Friday 16th September 2016, 8pm, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Director Kip Williams brings a darker, raw vision to Sydney Theatre Company's latest interpretation of William Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Drawing on the influence of Peter Brook's 1970 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Williams delivers an updated imagining with seeming simplicity and copious amounts of blood.

Matthew Backer as Puck, Paula Arundell as titania, Robert Menzies as Oberon and the Forest Fairies (Photo: Brett Boardman)
Emma Harvie as Cobweb, Josh McConville as Nick Bottom, Rahel Romahn as Moth and Bruce Spence as Mustard Seed (Photo: Brett Boardman)

Williams has created a broader interpretation of Brook's white space and continued the trend of doubling the rulers of Athens and the Fairy world. Whilst Shakespeare's text and the setting remain in an old world, he presents the characters as living in a modern world, from their attire to their technology, particularly in relation to the Mechanicals. He draws on the notion of sex and power being linked and dispels the notions of perfect relationships as the characters get drawn into the parallel world of the forest. He doesn't really seek to right the imbalance of gender values that prevailed when Shakespeare wrote the work, in a way providing a comment that those notions still exist as evidenced by the number of women that long for the day they can don a white dress and the tradition that men still steer the instigation of marriage.

Paula Arundell as Titania with the Forest Fairies (Photo: Brett Boardman)
Emma Harvie as Robin Starveling (Photo: Brett Boardman)

At initial glance, Set designer Robert Cousins has created a shallow stage with a band of white reaching up from the floor to about the 7 foot mark, at which point it the walls of black reach up into the rafters. It soon becomes apparent that Cousins has extended this theme to provide a bare white and black box for Williams' actors to race around, collide with, and smother with blood. The white walls and floor draw the focus down whilst the black beyond the 7 foot mark serves to show emphasise how small the fairies and mortals are when lost in the forest. Sydney Theatre Company's set and props department have been busy playing with fake blood again, ensuring there are copious amounts to be sploshed, smeared and sprayed across Cousins' white stage and it is a wonder that more of it doesn't get on Babidge's white wedding dresses and dinner shirts.

Matthew Backer transforms into Puck (Photo: Brett Boardman)
Susan Prior as Peter Quince, Rahel Romahn as Snug, Josh McConville as Nick Bottom, Bruce Spence as Tom Snout, Jay James-Moody as Francis Flute and Emma Harvie as Robin Starveling (Photo: Brett Boardman)

In keeping with Williams' vision, costume designer Alice Babidge has kept the costuming equally simple and contemporary. The Athenians are presented in formal dinner jackets and wedding dresses for the intended brides with the additional scene fillers presented in black with somewhat disturbing black peak cotton hoods. Puck (Matthew Backer) transforms himself from one of the faceless hooded men of Theseus' council to Oberon's mischievous servant. Backer strips, disposing of garments into the front row, peeling down to black sequin hotpants and stockings and smearing his face with makeup to ensure the audience sees him as a unique character. Robert Menzies transitions between Athenian ruler Theseus to Fairy King Oberon with the exchange of formal black dinner jacket for a less structured one made of gold and silver sequins. His change is mirrored by Paula Arundell's change from Hippolyta in her wedding dress to Titania, Queen of the Fairies in a slinky but somewhat ill fitting dress of sequins to match Oberon's jacket. The young couples stay in their shirt sleeves and white dresses to indicate they've strayed into the forest and don't fit in with the grotesque 'fairies' that draw on the current fringe show imagination of mythical creatures. With costumes reminicient of Mongrel Mouth's LIKE ME but without the pop of colour, Babidge has opted to create mythical monsters with onesies and accentuated suggestive adornment, masks and wigs. The Mechanicals have been dressed as if they have been plucked out of a stereotype of a nerdy science class with the nerdiest street wear available at the nearest op shop.

Robert Menzies as Oberon and Matthew Backer as Puck (Photo: Brett Boardman)
Robert Menzies as Oberon and Matthew Backer as Puck (Photo: Brett Boardman)

Robert Menzies as Theseus and Oberon balances the need to be imposing whilst still expressing the jealousy he feels for Titania as he plans to manipulate her. Similarly, Paula Arundell is equally strong in conveying the Queen of the Fairies power over the forest as she gathers her grotesque fairies. The four lovers lost in the wood exude an innocence both in character but also their own personal careers as they bring new life to STC. The Mechanicals capture the humour of the piece and provide a great contrast to the seriousness that is unfolding between the lovers. Their odd collection of misfits exude more defined characters than the lovers quartet and though their role is relatively small, are more captivating.

Brandon McClelland as Demetrius and Honey Debelle as Helena with Robert Menzies as Oberon (Photo: Brett Boardman)
Matthew Backer as Puck and Rob Collins as Lysander (Photo: Brett Boardman)

The stand out performance comes from Matthew Backer as Puck. Backer infuses mischievousness into Puck's expression and conveys the underlying question of how loyal he really is, particularly with regard to his lack of concern that he's bewitched the wrong lover. There is a delicious darkness to his delivery letting us know that he knows he's being instructed to be wicked and he's relishing in the game. As the trusted messenger he sees everything and provides more of the observation with a sass and honesty.

Rob Collins as Lysander and Rose Riley as Hermia (Photo: Brett Boardman)
Rahel Romahn as Snug (Photo: Brett Boardman)

This interpretation of Shakespeare's classic is done with gravity, darkness and a degree of depravity whilst still retaining lightness and humour to shock and entertain at the same time. Confronting and thought provoking with a liberal dose of bare flesh, this interpretation of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is not for children, but does prompt adult audiences to examine the darkness of their own minds in dreams.

Josh McConville as Nick Bottom (Photo: Brett Boardman)

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

12 September - 22 October 2016


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