Kip Williams’ brooding, sinister Dream is another coup for the STC’s interim artistic director
Shakespeare’s racism and misogyny never pass without comment these days in productions that aim to speak to today’s audiences, and it’s in this spirit that director Kip Williams takes the hacksaw of contemporary values to the sprites and shenanigans of the Bard’s much-produced comedy. The result is a brooding and pungent Midsummer Night, more nightmare than dream, in a setting bringing to mind an Amsterdam sex club rather than an Athenian forest.
Williams and his collaborators have looked at the play’s broad outline like a Parental Advisory committee, frowning at the manipulations of older, straight white males over women’s bodies. A Duke, Theseus (here played by Robert Menzies), intercedes in a love triangle and lays down the law. Hermia (Rose Riley) has been betrothed to Demetrius (Brandon McClelland) by her father Egeus (Bruce Spence), but she refuses, as she loves Lysander (Rob Collins), who in turn is adored by Helena (Honey Debelle). Theseus gives Hermia three attractive non-options: marriage to Demetrius, death or exile to a nunnery.
Then there’s fairy king Oberon (Menzies again – most Dreams cast the same actor in the dual authoritarian roles). He’s unhappy with the willfulness of his queen Titania (Paula Arundel), so he gets his minion Puck (Matthew Backer) to infect her with love potion to embarrass her, with the result of her falling in love with a donkey. (“This falls out better than I could devise!” Oberon exclaims on being told of his paramour’s debasement.) The fairy king also uses his magical Rohypnol to cause havoc and shame among the four young lovers (all of whom save McClelland are STC first-timers).
Sex as a tool of power is the theme here, and one that the staging goes all-out to emphasise. Early scenes are played out with Crucible-like seriousness, the men in stern suits and hoods passing judgement and the women in constricting bridal veils and 1950s wigs, all to the ominous thrumming of Chris Williams’ music.
When the lovers flee to the forest of Arden, it’s not a verdant place at all but a barren white space above which suspends a void of blackness: a limbo for the desires of the unconscious. The fairy queen’s arrival at this oppressive place is one of several show-stoppers: decked out in a Khaleesi wig and shining in figure-hugging reflective golden dress, Arundel writhes on the spot, full of dangerous potency. Her fairy entourage is more troubling still: a parade of fleshy grotesques with exaggerated sex organs who pose with their queen in sordid tableaux.
Costume designer Alice Babidge has Robin Goodfellow in a pair of hot pants and pantyhose. Backer avoids camp, however, and instead plays up Puck’s leering cruelty. The sprite doles out love tincture like a punishment, physically smearing it on the faces of sleepers who then awake in the grip of orgasm.
As desire overtakes and addles the young characters, stripping away the veneer of civilisation, so are they reduced down to their underwear, in shades of Joe Orton’s 1960s comedies of sex and societal breakdown, as well as Pasolini’s De Sadean 1975 film Salo.
It’s wonderful to be in the hands of a director with a strong vision and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a dark thriller works very well – up to a point. And that point is, as always, Shakespeare’s actual play.
According to one of the excellent essays in the program, scholars assume the play was written to be performed at a wedding: it’s relatively short; strident in promoting wifely obeisance; and features a troupe of actors hired to perform at a wedding, exactly the kind of meta-gag Shakespeare revelled in. Accordingly A Midsummer Night’s Dream is structured like a full banquet, with the frivolity of the Mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe a soufflé coming after the meatier stuff.
Williams doesn’t muffle the antics of the gang led by Peter Quince (Susan Prior). They’re a hilarious and colourful bunch who steal the show as usual: Josh McConville excelling as Bottom, the ham actor whose pomposity earmarks him to play the part of the ass in Titania’s humiliation. The Mechanicals’ performance serves to send up the play we’ve just seen, down to the self-referential jokes about pretentious directors and their clever-clever staging techniques. It’s amusing, but dissolves the seriousness and creepiness of the critique of patriarchal exploitation that Williams has hitherto tried to give us. Shakespeare, by definition, defies simple interpretations, no matter how brilliantly executed.
It may not ultimately cohere but there’s no denying the intelligence and panache behind this production. It’s at once anarchic and tightly controlled: mesmerising, funny, gory, sexy, confronting. “If we shadows have offended/Think but this and all is mended,” says Puck in his closing address, and the theatre’s most famous apology to the audience has rarely been so richly warranted.