If it is Shakespeare, it must have some great and weighty theme for all of us to ponder as we stroke our chins in contemplation.
Or it could just be a witty jest written by the world’s greatest playwright.
That might the best way to approach A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially in the merry, kinetic, and expertly played production presented by the new theatre company, Shakespeare in the Park, at Sydney’s Wentworth Park Bandshell.
So try to follow this because there will be a test: Hermia loves Lysander but is promised (by her father) to Demetrius who is in turn amourously pursued by Helena. Helena and Lysander decamp to the forest where, for reasons of his own involving a spat with the missus, Oberon, the king of the faeries, through his servant Puck, causes Lysander to be dosed with a love potion which instantly makes him fall in love with Helena.
Meanwhile, a troupe of Athenian tradesmen is in the same woods preparing a play to celebrate the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta. It is a bad play and they are bad actors: the classical Greek version of an Ed Wood production. One of the troupe, Bottom, is bewitched by Puck to turn into an ass and have Oberon’s queen, Titiana, fall madly in love with him.
If you’re looking for a theme, it could be about the transformative power of love and how it makes asses of us all.
However, a second option would be to just enjoy the show.
This is one of the best Shakespeare productions I have seen on a local stage. Every performance was bold, distinctive, and high energy: the actors were obviously having fun and that fun was infectious.
Nicole MacDougall, as usual, was a diminutive dynamo as Hermia, especially in a brilliant scene where her character, thinking she has been slighted because of her height, trash talks her romantic rival that could have been written especially for MacDougall. As Helena, Lindsay Thompson gave her character a nerdish intensity and could get belly laughs from the audience just from the ferocity of her character’s diary writing.
Both Stephen McIsaac, as Lysander, and Eric Letcher, as Demetrius, thanks to the colourlessness of their characters as written, had less comedic material to work with early on but when bewitched with love juice, they demonstrated excellent comedic chops.
Ron Newcombe as Oberon/Theseus and Allison Haley as Titania/Hippolyta gave strong performances, especially as the faerie monarchs when they were allowed to relax a bit into their characters and some fun.
Amber Cragg, as a punkishly puckish Puck, had the insolent body language of a put upon servant and lovely, comically expressive face. Jenn Tubrett as Egeus (Hermia’s parent) and Philostrate (Theseus’ servant) did solid, strong work and fully exploited the comedic possibilities of the second character.
Of course, the plum role of the piece is Bottom which Mark Delaney plumbed mercilessly for laughs, channelling equal parts of Kenneth Branagh and William Shatner. Oblivious to the blarney in his own bluster, Delaney’s Bottom is an extravagance of great acting aping bad acting.
The rest of his troupe–James Munroe (Peter Quince), David Hutchinson (Snug), and Erin Thompson (Snout)–gave their characters a giddy enthusiasm supported by some great physical playing. I have to give special props to Stephanie Hennessey as Flute (a boy) reluctantly playing Thisbe (a girl). Her character’s despair at her part was subtly conveyed through gesture and voice. It was a quiet contrast to the high energy of her fellow performers but still had the same power.
And of course no production of Midsummer would be complete without a dancing, singing faerie troupe and this production boasted a colourful, spritely set: Jana Gillis (Moth), Kate MacMullin (Peaseblossom), Bhreagh MacNeil (Mustardseed), and Caitriona MacMullin (Cobweb), and on the evening I attended, Minuet Charron as a tiny auxiliary faerie. Gillis was also the vocal coach and choreographer and did an excellent job in both capacities.
This production was the brainchild of producer/director Bonnie MacLeod and she is to be congratulated for both getting the project launched and bringing her cast to a professional level of performance. She used her unusual venue to great advantage (although there were vocal problems more to do with acoustic properties of the bandshell rather than any weakness in the performances). She created, with set designer Shari MacLeod, a distinctive playing area, with some plain plank platforms, a few trees, and a central portal, that was functional, evocative, and capable of serving as a forest, a throne room, and any other place the action of the play demanded.
This play continues nightly at 7 pm until Sunday, July 1. Everyone attending should bring a chair or blanket (the show is a quick two hours) to sit on the grass in front of the bandshell. Admission is by donation so be generous and maybe they’ll do another show before the summer is out.