Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Photo by Brett Boardman
The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Commonwealth Bank present, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, by William Shakespeare, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 16 September-22 October.

How many productions of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM has one seen? Enough to have benchmarks of merit. From Peter Brook's 1970's version through to the recent Tim Supple, multi-lingual one, presented in the Sydney Theatre a few years ago. To the Benjamin Britten opera take, to the many, many university, drama school, high school goes-at-it.  The film and television recordings of it. Enough to have almost intimate knowledge of the work to have it conceptualised, bent, 'played' with, and are able to still have some idea of what is happening on this stage, at the Opera House, in contrast to what is usually supposed to be happening.

Jan Kott in his influential exercise SHAKESPEARE OUR CONTEMPORARY (1966) writes of the bestial/dark version of this usually sunny play, in his chapter "Titania and the Ass's Head". It seems Director Kip Williams has decided that for the times we live in, that this dark emphasis is what we need.

At his wedding feast in Act V, says Theseus:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman: the Lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The Poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it could apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear?

Mr Williams has conjured with his Designers - Set Design, Robert Cousins; Costume Design, Alice Babidge; Lighting Design, Damien Cooper; Composer, Chris Williams - a scary post-modernist space filled with Hieronymus Bosch-like images of hellish deformity filtered through a contemporary sensibility evoking the work of artists such as Matthew Barney, Leigh Bowery or Cindy Sherman, that take us into a world of nightmare rather than dream.

On a stripped-back, white floored stage with all the (three) walls demarcated with a strip of white some five feet or so tall, edged sharply into black, with lighting of blazing white flashing, and start to finish ominous music backing the activities of this theatrical vision, behind a proscenium-wide scrim-gauze, a figure begins the play, back-to-us, singing verses from Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS. Latterly, after a collection of images there appears another figure, surrounded by men in black hooded masks, who is supervising a conflict between a father and daughter and the suitors for her marriage future. The father, like the father of the Juliet in that famous tragedy is patriarchy writ large: "I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,- as she is mine I may dispose of her ... or to her death; according to our law/ immediately provided in that case." This heralds a Directorial take of the play as one of drama even tragedy. One can ask is this the Athenian Arcadia on a midsummer eve or rather the whitened sepulchre of Vienna in the problem play which dishes out a measure for measure? This world is not one to laugh with, but one of conspiracy and fearful consequences to take dreadful lessons from.

The lovers, Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius and forlorn Helena, flee in to the woods to attempt to elope. But this wood has been distempered by the Fairy Queen and King who in quarrel have caused
"... the seasons to alter ... The spring, the summer/ the chiding autumn, angry winter, change/ their wanted liveries; and the maz'd world,/ by their increase, now knows not which is which ..." and foul looking creatures and actions are rife. Innocents found 'playing' in the woods are affrighted and one is kidnapped and translated into a monster by magic - into a man with a donkey's head -and taken to wanton acts in a drugged state with a strange woman. This is not an Arcadian wood but a drugged party of permissive activities in a Bacchic world.

Traditionally, A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT DREAM is one of the lightest and in many respects the most purely playful of Shakespeare's plays. But in this production, without too much textual adaptation, we are shown that this world of sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster, more subterranean world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled, by darkness, aggression and deception, utilizing drugs/flower potions, sex and rock 'n roll in cruel gestures of frustration and spite. (Freud!!) And yet "... things base and vile, holding no quantity,/ love can transpose to form and dignity./ Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;/ and therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.

This dark vision in the production of Shakespeare's sunniest play, for the Sydney Theatre Company, ends in the same way as the usual, and so Puck's last speech becomes layered with a pertinence (for some of the audience):
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this - and all is mended -
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream,
Gentles do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I'm an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
We will make amends ere long; Else the Puck a liar call:
Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.
This production will be as pleasing as you will, as you may like it.

I came to the production with some foreknowledge of the tone of 'darkness' that Mr Williams had embraced. A tone that initially - in the watching - intrigued and excited me. So I was quite prepared. And prepared not only for the tone but also for the expectation of Mr Williams' usual arresting visual aesthetic! It has become a hallmark of his theatrical entry to all his work: A tightly controlled visual affect - Set Design and Lighting - onto which he then places his actors, who, mostly, are then moved about those Design strictures like pieces in an installation art work, utilising the actors more like visual 'puppets' - marionettes - than as possible flesh and blood interpreters of character.

The eye works before the ear - it is the eye that Mr Williams insists we favour (Robert Wilson is the contemporary 'genius' of this oeuvre). It is a fact with most of the work from Mr Williams that I have seen, going back to his graduating production at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), of a Beckett play - monologue, NOT I, where he employed some 40, or so, white-faced volunteers to deliver the work, where only one actor and an auditor was required, or in his recent staging of an orchestral work by Fausto Romitelli, INDEX OF METALS at Carriageworks: it is a visual conceptualisation that dominates the experience. The text has been scrutinised thoroughly in preparation for the ideas of the playwright, but there seems to be little attention on how that text is spoken, communicated in the work by his actors/singers.

This penchant, tendency, fits within the framework of the British modernist theories of Gordon Craig (1872-1966) who asserted that the Director was ' the true artist of the theatre' and, controversially, suggested viewing actors as no more important than marionettes. ... arguing that "audiences go to the theatre to see, rather than to hear, plays". The Design elements may transcend reality and function as symbols, he thought, to communicate a deeper meaning, instead of simply reflecting the real world of the play.

Craig's first innovation was to create a neutral non-representational space; secondly, his use of lighting (overhead) colour and light became central to his stage conceptualisations; and his evolving process of using actors as puppets or masked - Says Craig in Michael J. Walton's CRAIG ON THEATRE (1983, Methuen):
there is only one actor - nay one man who has the soul of the dramatic poet, and who ever served as the true and loyal interpreter of the poet (and) this is the marionette.
In this production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, we are given an austere stylised vacant space; we are shown brilliant lighting effects that create visceral affect; and the actors are masked or given costume that is mostly, symbolic, and an unfortunate obfuscation for the audience to be able to read a complex character - the physical-who of the costuming is reduced to visual conceptualised solutions that the actor cannot, necessarily, transcend (often we can't even see the actor's face) to present human complexities, or that allows the audience to endow with empathy. (Indeed, as witnessed in this production it takes a great actor to make a mark as an individual storyteller with an authentic life-force that goes beyond the stylistic distillation of an intellectual idea that the Director through the Costume Designer has made for the actor and the audience - in this instance: Paula Arundell).

The puzzle to begin this play with Puck (Matthew Backer) singing quotes from Porgy and Bess, and the severe editing and dark staging/reading of the opening Court scenes with the rulers of Athens, Theseus (Robert Menzies) and Hippolyta (Paula Arundell) and some of their contentious citizens: Egeus (Bruce Spence), his daughter, Hermia (Rose Riley), her friend, Helena (Honey Debelle) and her suitors for love, Lysander (Rob Collins) and Demitrius (Brandon McClelland) was bracingly thrilling. The move to the Mechanicals: Peter Quince (Susan Prior), Nick Bottom (Josh McConville), Francis Flute (Jay James-Moody), Tom Snout (Bruce Spence), Robin Starveling (Emma Harvie), and Snug (Rahel Romahn) promised 'cute' comedy to come. The dark wrangling between Oberon, King of the Fairies (Robert Menzies) and Titania (Paula Arundell) was clear and startling in its intense sexual rancour; with the vision of the fairy world with their retinue posing contemporary discomfort, led by a 'Manager of Ceremonies', Puck (Matthew Backer).

Tis a pity then that none of this theatrical surprise was able to be sustained - we had had, in the first two acts, a bracing palate clean of old conceptions of the worlds of this famous and oft told play, and one was full of anticipatory wonder as to where it would go with the offers so far given. It was to nowhere, alas. The intellectual conceptions, conceits, of the production remained fairly static, with little development other than re-statements of the original symbol and cheek - there were no more surprises to come - and as time passed in the theatre the production moved into a dying state, on the verge of extinction of interest - moribund.

 The bold production conceits drained away in affect and the familiar scenario of Shakespeare's play, our remembrances from many other meetings, became more and more the 'straw' - the 'life raft' - that we as an audience had to cling to, to sustain our attention, to try to understand what was happening - if you were unfamiliar with the play, you may have got very puzzled, bewildered, 'lost'. Visual style was lauded over auditory substance. And, if you are engaged with an Elizabethan play the language is the principal reason to do it, I would have thought. The engagement of the ear is the primary responsibility?

The actors are all given body microphones to broadcast their textual responsibilities. The sound that the audience receive with this text is not apparent in the embodiment of the actors as the Sound is literally 'broadcast' to us from electronic 'speakers' - it creates an artificial communication, compounded in this production by the bare stage space that echoes the sound hollowly around the theatre. The received sound becomes relatively bland in pitch and volume, lacking variety to keep an audience alert as listeners. Sitting back instead of leaning in to focus one's concentration. The actors have their voices snatched away into a 'mechanism' and reduces them to bodies mouthing words - puppets, perhaps? (I do believe, nay I know, that most of these actors have the basic craft skills to deliver the play without the body-mikes)

And, if you add the general lack of Directorial detail in the 'music'/content of the language (it seems to deteriorate as the play moved forward - the first two acts were 'working' well), which is especially necessary for one of the most notoriously (famous) difficult scenes in the play - in all of Shakespeare? - the long lover's quarrel in the woods (Act III, Scene II), where the verbal/word comedy is accompanied by intense physical farce, one can be faced, as we were, on this night, with some 15-20 minutes of incomprehension, unless one had a foreknowledge of the play, to endow a gist to the storytelling.

There is no adequate substitute, in this production, to the verbal necessities with the adopted visual ploy to have the lovers remove the layering of their clothing down to their underwear as what?, maybe a symbolic gesture of the emotional stripping going-on. It was not sufficient for most of us to sustain one's intelligent engagement. Hamlet, advising his acting troupe in his mousetrap to catch his Uncle Claudius' guilt, has told us that the word should suit the action. The action suit the word. Both supporting each other for clarities sake. Here, physical wrestling and a slow but aggressive strip action trumped the word in all instances. And, surely, there has to be some further concern about the Directorial guidance when one of our 'great 'young actors, Mr McConville (Bell Shakespeare's recent Hamlet) delivers Bottom's awakening speech without scoring one laugh from the audience from Shakespeare's written text. There could be no firmer truth in this production than "the eye of man have not heard, the ear of man has not seen" for we could not hear with clarity the word, or see with our ears, the images and jokes of the text.

The comedy made in the famous Pyramus and Thisbe play of the mechanicals, given here, proved, no matter what else, the indestructibility of that part of the play, for the choices made with these mechanicals did almost produce "a tedious brief scene", indeed. The endearing amateur 'clumsiness' of this masterstroke of Shakespeare's survived the ham-fisted spraying of blood-lust, that this company found to solve some of the telling. (Let's blame Tarantino's influence, here.)

The brilliant exception to this reception was the performance of Ms Arundell, who with vocal clarity of superb technical control, and rich imaginative ownership of the language, with scintillating physical sexuality, laden with wit, charm, menace, grief, pain - creating a Titania/Hippolyta of some note. Ms Arundell is one of Sydney's great actors. Ms Prior with less to play with as Peter Quince, too, makes a mark, while of the lovers the clearest is Ms Riley's Hermia. Mr Menzies is the best of the men, followed by the almost silent Mr Romahn as a 'cute' and moving Snug/Lion.

If a Shakespeare production does not have consistent auditory clarity and content, the play cannot stand, no matter the pictorials of the Directorial placement of his actors/marionettes.

This STC production began with such exciting promise, but, for me, was derailed as the attention to language became less and less important  in the Directorial guidance to the experience of the 'adventure'.

I remarked that on the ABC at 8.30pm on the same night there was an episode of Midsomer Murder. Possibly, a better choice. How sad that is to write.

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