A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Hot enough to wilt the wildflowers
I can’t imagine anyone who has seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be surprised that a somewhat darker version might be curiously appropriate. Puck has always seemed to me to be capable of inflicting a little nasty magic; for example, setting up a fairy queen with a donkey were it not an act delivered in a fairy tale, could be seen as plain kinky-mean.
Likewise, Theseus’ court, discounting the difference in time period, would see unfortunate maidens as pieces of flesh to be bestowed or withheld to other men at their fathers’ whim. In short, young ladies who must do their fathers’ bidding or die is not the stuff of fluffy escapism. But of course, no one could call Shakespeare’s plays fluffy escapism, even in their most comical scenarios.
The above paragraphs set the scene for Sydney Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Kip Williams. It is a little bit The Handmaid’s Tale, a little bit dark Brothers Grimm, and it definitely has increased a few voltages in carnality … Right from the moment the curtain goes up and a buff male in sequinned knickers sings a slow and moody Summertime we know the climate of this Midsummer’s night is sultry.
I loved the costuming of this production, courtesy of Alice Babidge. In Theseus’ court (Theseus played by Robert Menzies), all woman who are not nuns are clad in 1950’s wedding gowns, their faces and hair fully covered by both wigs and white veils. Hardly appropriate attire for Theseus’ fiancé Hippolyta (Paula Arundell), she is Queen of the Amazons after all! This disconcerting first scene is further augmented by what is actually happening on stage, essentially Theseus and the father of Hermia (Hermia played by Rose Riley), deciding on the young woman’s future without thought for her opinion or happiness. But we all know the narrative of this famous Shakespearean play.
Our second scene takes us to the forest where the Fairy Queen Titania (Arundell) is giving Fairy King Oberon (Menzies) grief in a far more gender-equitable manner! Both Oberon and Titania are dressed in wonderfully garish gold sequins that would not be out-of-place in a burlesque show. In contrast to our vestal white virgins of the court of humans, Titania is all skin-tight, cleavage revealing sexiness. We know things are getting nasty when Oberon requests a wicked Puck (Matthew Backer in Joker face paint and sequined hotpants) to work humiliating magic on Queen Titania ‒ and, as an afterthought, to also assist a human maiden (Helena, played by Honey Debelle) win the love of Demetrius (Brandon McClelland).
And of course all bedlam ensues. Four young lovers end up in the forest, two hoping to elope, the other two trying to stop them. To the same forest go a group of townsfolk, Shakespeare’s clowns, rehearsing a play to delight their Lord Theseus. Puck misapplies his love potion and its all misunderstandings and misadventures from there on in!
I really enjoyed Kip Williams and STC’s darker take on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I'm waiting for Baz Luhrmann to take on the film project as it would be so Mr Luhrmann's style!
Catch A Midsummer Night’s Dreamat Sydney Opera House until 22 October.