Chekhov International Theatre Festival /
Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory / Theatre School of Dramatic Art
New Zealand Festival
St James Theatre | February 27-March 2
‘A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I
The question that ran through my mind in the day leading up to this performance of Dmitry Krymov’s magical comedy: how do you create an almost two hour long show from three pages of one of Shakespeare’s great comedies?
While Pyramus and Thisbe’s story forms part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the ill-fated lovers are best known through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where their tragi-romance is acted out by The Mechanicals, an amateur troupe of actors. The title of this performance provides a hint—don’t expect this to resemble anything close to an ordinary Shakespearean production. Before the show started, an usher leaned over and whispered, “I hear there are a lot of surprises throughout this show, should be good!”
Commissioned for the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012, good does not begin to sum up A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It). Organised, perfectly executed, and chaotic come close.
The first thing you notice when walking in to the St James Theatre is the stripped-down stage, looking more like a gymnasium than a theatre, with a simple wooden floor and green exit signs glowing from the back. Never have I seen the stage so bare. A large chandelier lies on stage, baring undertones of The Phantom of the Opera. The evening begins with chaotic players lugging a large tree and a water fountain spraying water on the front row, through the audience to the stage, only to never be seen again in the next 90 minutes. Rather, the show focuses on the lovers, with a cast made of rough workers, black-tie spectators, ballerinas, opera singers, acrobats, and a show-stealing Jack Russell. With their own on-stage spectators, we find ourselves watching the play-within-the-play as Shakespeare intended.
Spoken in Russian with English subtitles, the large screens give the audience the translation they require, all the while providing subtle hilarity throughout the performance. “Pyramus and Thisbe were the first lovers,” we read. “They are the great-grandparents of epic couples including Romeo and Juliet, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Bernard Shaw and Patrick Campbell.” KGB jokes are sprinkled throughout, as well as plenty of cellphone interruptions, and on-stage nudity.
The lovers are represented by two six-metre high puppets and voiced by wonderful opera singers. Towering over the cast and audience, Pyramus and Thisbe are hardly beautiful in any conventional use of the word. Hastily pieced together, the characters move around the stage as gracefully as possible, clearly possessing human traits, while maintaining brilliant mechanical elements.
Krymov’s show wonderfully blends high and low art to create something of a masterpiece from a short original source. Tired from laughing and craning around the audience to ensure I caught every minute, I walked away incredibly cheerful and amazed at the spectacle.