A rag-tag troupe of thespians take over the stage at Sydney Theatre Company in this re-imagination of A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Australian comic sensibility probably isn’t that far from that of the Elizabethan groundlings. Those raucous crowds eating and laughing through shows in the cheap seats at the time of Shakespeare loved a good fart joke, cheered for double (or single) entendre, and were suckers for broad, bawdy physical comedy. Basically, they would have gotten a kick out of Dame Edna.
They also would have loved The Popular Mechanicals. Written by Keith Robinson and Tony Taylor (with some help from Shakespeare), it debuted in 1987 under the direction of stage and screen legend Geoffrey Rush. The premise of the play is simple: what if the love triangle, fairies, and magical forest antics were cut out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
What’s left is the rude mechanicals – the bumbling labourers turned amateur thespians who are planning a production of “lamentable comedy” Pyramus and Thisbe for the new royal couple. (One of them, Bottom, is the guy who gets turned into a donkey in the middle of the play – and consequently goes missing for a while in this production). Think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but replace the philosophical bent of that play with comedy, and then replace the wit of it with sight gags. The sole purpose of The Popular Mechanicals is to make you laugh – and it succeeds.
Directed here by Sarah Giles in a revival of the 2015 State Theatre of South Australia production directed by Sarah Giles, we watch the motley band of carpenters and bellows-menders rehearse their show, perform song-and-dance numbers from their repertoire, and struggle to re-cast the missing Bottom with a grand ex-Shakespearean actor (he’s a drunken mess).
The ensemble – Lori Bell, Julie Forsyth, Charles Mayer, Amber McMahon, Tim Overton, and Rory Walker – are all skilled comic actors, each turning out finely-observed, detailed performances that push the play from funny to hilarious – from the look on Bell’s face as she apologises profusely for an upcoming skit, or McMahon’s impish, enthusiastic response to absolutely everything that happens onstage.
There are impromptu musical performances on impromptu instruments, references to a bunch of other Shakespearean plays via liberally borrowed dialogue, the delightfully anachronistic inclusion of a few telephones for the sake of a joke or two, and a truly spectacular skit that cannot and must not be spoiled – part of its joy is in its utter surprise – but it involves the silliest of props and had the audience all but howling with laughter.
It’s a recognisably Australian comedy, moving at a fast clip as a series of sketches. Jonathon Oxlade’s set might as well be your local Scout Hall, complete with an urn and sausage rolls for sustenance, and the actors speak in comfortable Australian accents. Later, someone sucks dry a box of goon.
It’s also the kind of updated vaudeville (which itself had a strong, popular tradition in Australia from the 1890s through to the 1950s) that turns up on local stages every so often: think the gag-a-minute, funny-for-funny’s sake Pirates of Penzance that convinced a country Gilbert and Sullivan was relevant and sort of cool back in the ’90s.
Sydney theatre is really interested in making its audiences laugh at the moment, with The Play That Goes Wrong, The Rasputin Affair, The Homosexuals and Talk playing in theatres across the city. Of all these comedies, The Popular Mechanicals is the most straightforwardly, rewardingly funny.