National Library of New Zealand
Harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Apr 11 2015 at 11:25:49 GMT
Search boxes and external links may not function. Having trouble viewing this page? Click here
Close Minimize Help
Wayback Machine
GayNZ Logo & Link
Saturday 11 April 2015

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Posted in: Performance
By Lexie Matheson - 17th February 2015

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Produced by Natalie Beran for The AUSA Outdoor Summer Shakespeare Trust
Directed by Michael Hurst

Costumes Designed by Troy Garton
Set Design by Rick Cave

Lighting Design by Rachel Marlow
Staged in the Old Arts Plaza – Under the Clocktower, University of Auckland

13 February 2015 to 07 March, 2015 at 8.00pm
Playing time 2 hours 30 minutes

Bring a cushion and something warm to wear.


Outdoor summer Shakespeare has had a wobbly old history at the University of Auckland but it’s past 50 now and looking pretty stable at the moment. Under the canny chairmanship of Michael Hurst ONZM, the AUSA Outdoor Summer Shakespeare Trust, which produces the annual event, looks well anchored boasting, as it does, a bunch of very impressive sponsors, some heavyweight academic nous (Prof Tom Bishop and Prof Norman Wong) and some serious longevity (Donald Trott ONZM). More strength to the arms of these luminaries because the outdoor summer Shakespeare under the clocktower means an awful lot to many of us and it would be sad to see it go the way of so many good things.

Hurst is in the director’s chair for 2015 and his baby is ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. His is a super concept and there is much to applaud from excellent acting, refined direction, attractive design and some tip top music.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ invites innovation and this version has it by the bowerful. Set in seemingly modern times – Flute is engrossed in his iPhone – there is anarchy too with the ‘hard handed men’ of Athens bearing a look of earlier times and the fairies looking, well, fairy-like. The lovers, conversely, could have tottered, arms filled with designer bags, from any clothes shop in any High Street on the planet and as recently as today. In short, the design is delicious and works a treat. If you get the idea that the costumes (Troy Garton) are pretty special you’re absolutely right. It would seem that Hurst is more interested in the class variables – the Duke’s bunch are pretty posh and the rude mechanicals markedly less so - than the visual dynamic and this too is singularly appropriate because Shakespeare does this too.

We groundlings, having been served by excellent staff in the outer area, excitedly enter the performance space to find a somewhat conventional, plain rectangular platform bookended by a spearmint flavoured arch at one end and a black leather couch at the other. Behind the couch is a delicious looking cocktail dispensary with the look of a sun dial and decked with bottles of colourful liquids and martini glasses. These are used often during the 2 hour 30 minute journey through the play.

It’s clear that Hurst and his excellent set designer (Rick Cave) have chosen not to capitalise on the open environment of the Old Arts Quad and the decision is a sound one for many reasons not the least being managing the amplification and balancing of the voices which, in the main, worked quite well.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a great choice for an outdoor Shakespeare. It’s set mostly in the outdoors, it’s really well known and it’s popular with all ages so the likelihood of commercial success is increased especially once schools are back and this matters more today than ever before. It’s a good call on every level – kids should see good Shakespeare - and this is a very good production.

For me, the success of creating a Shakespeare lies, not in the ability to stage individual scenes or even to build good performances, but the capacity to overview the whole journey, to tell the story, and this Hurst has done, and always does, exceptionally well. There’s a dark heart to Shakespeare’s play and this is often overlooked in the endless search for laughter and romance but not so in this case. We need both and Hurst and his excellent cast have given us this and with oodles to spare.

There’s genius in Hurst’s casting too. Not everything works, but having the courage to involve the aptly named Marvellous Theatre Group, a cluster of (mostly) over 65’s, is a masterstroke. They’re simply wonderful – marvellous even – and they bring a visual dimension to the production that has to be seen to be believed. They play fairies. Not the ones Shakespeare wrote but as mean a bunch of nasties – well, grumpies – as you’ll meet any night on a any village green. They allow the play to have observers from within, but more than that, they sing, dance and give witness to what Fairyland 2045 might look like, a dark and sinister, seriously threatening place. I simply adore the images the actors have chosen for themselves: there’s an Alice Cooper, a bunch of Flappers, some refugees from television’s mock horrors The Addams Family and The Munsters and many more and they’re eviling up a storm.

You may note that I’m avoiding talking about the plot, apart from saying that, in my opinion, Hurst has pitched his playing style and delivery just right. It’s true, I am avoiding it because the actors transport the narrative and all its many layers really well and if you want to know the story you should go and see the production. You should also have a chat with your parents about your schooling because, if you’ve got to your 20’s without meeting this play, you’ve been seriously deprived.

There’s intense passion in this work and it kicks off right at the get go with a nasty verbal scrap between Egeus (an impressive Mustaq Missouri), his daughter Hermia (Natasha Daniel), Lysander (Liam Ferguson) and Demetrius (Ryan Dulieu). It sets the tone for the evening and culminates in an absolutely magnificent scene, later, in the forest when vile insults fly like mosquitoes and in which all the lovers are breathtakingly good. Helena (Anthea Hill) is quite simply fabulous. The Puck (Amber-Rose Henshall) has done its hobgoblinish work with real finesse and chaos of the very best sort reigns supreme.

As I’ve already suggested, there’s never a scrap of doubt that Theseus (a classy Julian Toy-Cronin), Hippolyta (the statuesque Maxine Cunliffe), the four lovers and Egeus see themselves as being of a class well above the ‘hard-handed men’ of Athens who take the time to rehearse and perform ‘The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby’ to celebrate the nuptials of the duke and the duchess, on his wedding-day at night.’ It’s an act of absolute love on the part of the players but the smartarse responses of the upper crust rather suggest that it’s they who have the most to learn about respect and humility.

At the heart of the pandemonium sit Oberon (Alistair Browning) and his queen Titania (Sheena Irving) fighting over a changeling boy. Shakespeare loved changelings – they’re dotted about through the plays – and, though the lad doesn’t appear in this production, he’s critical to the plot and the power struggle between the fay royals, and the poor Athenian creatures suffer the extraordinary consequences.

Browning, looking like Tom Jones in his heyday, is one mean fairy king. He carries the narrative beautifully and he’s as sexy as hell. His relationship with Robin Goodfellow, the puck, is sensual and authoritative and works best when the threads between Shakespeare’s text and the performances marry.

Titania (Sheena Irving) is quite splendid. She’s got a lot to say early on and handles it all dazzlingly, articulating, with ‘These are the forgeries of jealousy’ the majestic power she and her King have over the weather and the world when Queen and King are not in harmony.’ Supported throughout by only two fairies – Peaseblossom (Amelia MacDonald) and Cobweb (Anya Bannerjee) – her refusal to budge an inch on Oberon’s desire to have her changeling - ‘the fairy land buys not the child of me ‘ - is command personified.

Which leaves only the ‘rude mechanicals’, and what a bunch they are. Peter Quince (an effective Jenny Parham) doesn’t stand a chance of managing this disparate bunch but she does her best. The characters are broadly painted and rough-edged but the performances are finely tuned and all Shakespeare’s myriad points are made and every laugh achieved. Top of the heap is amateur thespian incarnate Nick Bottom, the weaver, played with due magnificence by a hirsute Patrick Graham. Looking every bit the larger than life 19th century impresario, Graham strides the stage with gauche authority, clocking up his laughs and giving us great joy. He’s not alone either with Tom Snout (Mark Mockridge), Francis Flute (a taciturn Jeremy Fraser-Hoskin) and Robin Starveling (Jacqui Whall) turning in excellent performances. As Snug the Joiner, John Goudge touched our hearts as the seeming odd one out – a very clever piece of work.

The play within the play was an absolute riot as it should be with the various prologues played as well as I’ve ever seen them played.

High points of the evening: set and costumes, Hurst’s concept, the lover’s catfight, great use of Shakespeare’s language, Patrick Graham’s Bottom, The Marvellous Company, some fabulous storytelling, Anthea Hill’s remarkable Helena, and the experience overall. I had a thoroughly good night with no quibbles and just a few observations: I wondered why more wasn’t made of the Titania/Bottom sexual allusions that are evident in the text, I wondered why Titania only had two of the named attendant fairies, and I remain unsure about the use of modern day interjections from time to time despite the fact that they often gained the biggest laughs from the audience. Shakespeare would have approved, I’ve little doubt, so I guess that should be enough for me.

On a personal note, I had a great time and so did my family. The show is very complete and the evening most satisfying. It’s world class Shakespeare presented by a company who are clearly having the time of their lives.

Take a blanket, rug up warm, and spray liberally with insect goo.

Lexie Matheson - 17th February 2015

   Bookmark and Share