A Midsummer Night’s Dream;
The Ladykillers

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_midsummernightsBy William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Hurst
AUSA Outdoor Summer Shakespeare Trust
Old Arts Quad, Auckland | February 13-March 7

Why do we continue to produce the plays of William Shakespeare? Because they are inexhaustible. When I say inexhaustible I am talking about how the text contains multitudes, how the text demands infinite interpretations, meaning infinite productions. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, more so than any of Shakespeare’s other plays, is obsessed with love in all its vast and undefinable glory. The ridiculousness of love, the irrationality of love. The way love swings back and forth unexpectedly. Not to mention the way love undermines and mocks itself. All with the help of fairies. This is Shakespeare at his most fantastical.

The story, for the uninitiated, begins with the Duke of Athens, Theseus (Julian Toy-Cronin), and the amazon queen, Hippolyta (Maxine Cunliffe), discussing their upcoming marriage. They’re interrupted by Egeus (Mustaq Missouri), a pissed off father, whose daughter Hermia (Natasha Daniel) is planning to marry Lysander (Liam Ferguson), despite the fact he wants her to marry Demetrius (Ryan Dulieu). So the duke states that Hermia must do as her father has ordered, otherwise she will be punished by death or a vow of lifelong chastity. Naturally, Hermia and Lysander decide to rush off to the woods to elope, informing only their friend Helena (Anthea Hill) who happens to be in love with the aforementioned Demetrius. And so it begins.

As Hippolyta and Theseus, Cunliffe and Toy-Cronin make for an elegant couple, framing the Athenian side of the story effectively. And Missouri comfortably takes up the role of hatable and petulant father, frustrated by the impotence of his authority. The four youths, who undoubtedly represent the heart of the comedy, are superbly rendered to life by Daniel, Ferguson, Hill and Dulieu. Not one of them falters in capturing the simultaneous exuberance and desperation of being in love. The abrupt changes of heart under the influence of the “love juice” are also comedically and convincingly conveyed. Hill as Helena, in particular, wrings deeply felt sympathy from the audience with her boozy melancholy.

The supernatural side of the story is well conceived by Hurst. As the fairy king and queen, Oberon (Alistair Browning) and Titiana (Sheena Irving) perform with a majestic air appropriate to their otherworldly status. Using the seniors of the Marvellous Theatre Group, Hurst hasn’t cast your typically impish bunch as the fairy ensemble, but the fact that there’s something not quite right about them is what makes them perfect. They are Burton meets Lynch in a comic nightmare. It’s only the interpretation of Puck I have mixed feelings about. Instead of the playful prankster audiences are familiar with, we get a cheeky femme fatale. It’s a bold move to inject such overt sexuality into the role via Amber-Rose Henshall. Unfortunately, there are moments when this newfound erotic tension between Puck and Oberon obfuscates, rather than elevates, the narrative. I found myself occasionally relying on my knowledge of the play rather than the delivery of the words to understand what was being said. But, when this interpretation works, it works. Henshall’s delivery of “I go, I go; look how I go” drips with unforgettably delicious irony.

Let’s not forget about the mechanics. When this band of working-class misfits take the stage they become the stars in more ways than one. All of them do a stellar job, especially during their gut-busting production of play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisby, which is practically worth the price of admission alone. It’s there you’ll find that Shakespeare invented the notion of so-bad-it’s-good. But, in a production filled with scene-stealing performances, it is Patrick Graham as Bottom who shines brightest under the spotlight. You experience that rare sensation of having watched a definitive rendition of the Bard’s characters in his campy and over-the-top performance.

A minor issue that I always find slightly jarring in productions of Shakespeare is when there’s a clash of accents. The faux-Elizabethan “shakespearean voice” (whatever that means) works, but plenty of actors also speak in their natural accent. There isn’t a particular accent that is bad or off-putting in the slightest, just that it results in a lack of unity amongst the cast.

Staged just behind the University of Auckland Clocktower, nothing could be more perfect than a performance under the stars. This is how Shakespeare was meant to be done. It’s a simplistic set, as you’d expect from any outdoor production, but it never feels cheap so much as stripped down and bare. The focus, then, is more on the words and the plot rather than a reliance on stylistic flourishes. Though the cast do a mostly excellent job of projecting in the environment, the blocking versus the audience layout results in the occasional lost line in the wind. Modern music and dialogue is also peppered throughout the production, resulting in some extra laughs and smiles from the audience. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s done sparingly enough, never compromising the play itself.

So, what do we talk about when we talk about love? Well, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love is inexplicable. It’s not one thing, but many things. And Michael Hurst has directed a smooth and suave production that reflects this. This is Shakespeare for people who had Shakespeare ruined for them in high school by over-analysis and interpretation. One of the theatrical highlights of the summer season that shouldn’t be missed. Go see it and be spellbound.

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img_ladykillersBy Graham Lineham
Directed by Colin McColl and Cameron Rhodes
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | February 14-March 7

Regardless of what you’re watching, it’s always an uncomfortable feeling to find yourself enjoying something far less than the rest of an audience. After all, if everyone else seems to be having a good time, why aren’t you? So, over the last few days I’ve been struggling to articulate why Auckland Theatre Company’s polished production of The Ladykillers didn’t totally click for me. Perhaps it was too polished—to the point of having no real texture, no edge or surprise.

Based on the 1950s Ealing comedy film of the same name, The Ladykillers doesn’t feel like it has any reason to exist as a contemporary stageplay. For an unnecessary adaptation, it does manage to feel modern in both humour and spirit though. The script by television writer Graham Lineham is incredibly witty and full of moments of dynamic slapstick comedy. It’s built around a straightforward premise full of comedic potential: a group of professional crooks hideout at an old lady’s house pretending to be classical musicians, but unfortunately for them she catches on. It’s what you’d expect from a well-established theatre company: a funny, well-acted, well-directed, and just generally well-made product. But it’s this adherence to expectation that mars the production from being particularly memorable.

The first half, effectively utilising dramatic irony for comedic effect, creates an effective air of suspense. It’s engaging to watch the story unfold as we root for the criminals and their ill-prepared act of subterfuge. During the second half of the play, though, the production begins to deflate in its attempts at handling black comedy. Murder becomes a prominent comedic gag and plot device, but it’s handled in a manner too quaint for my taste. The result is neither that shocking or that funny. In the age of The Office, Girls, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Comeback, our threshold for nasty, acidic laughs are much higher.

As a whole, the entire cast does a good job playing up the broad comedy required of their roles as cartoonish characters. Carl Bland as Professor Marcus is, an effective leading man, manipulating Mrs Wilberforce (Annie Whittle) with Machiavellian charm. The rest of his gang, played by Peter Hayden, Bryan Coll, Andrew Grainger and Toby Leach all commit to each of their character’s individual quirks, not quite saving them from being underdeveloped caricatures, but certainly making them work. While Whittle does a competent job she seems too low-key for a comedy that begs for incredibly high energy and over-the-top acting, appearing too passive during moments where the stakes are meant to be high. The whole cast is at its best when pushed towards zany physical comedy. The sight of the whole gang crammed into a cupboard, for instance, is an unforgettably funny image.

The set by Rachael Walker and costumes by Elizabeth Whiting are exceptional. The simple touches from the excessive picture frames hanging off the walls to the slightly askew bedroom all perfectly come together to represent this off-kilter world. This and the kitschy costuming assist in transporting us to 1950s England. Special mention must be also be given to Mrs Wilderforce’s parrot, General Gordon, that we never see, but certainly hear.

First and foremost, the most important thing in comedy is the laughs. The Ladykillers does this well and certainly deserves credit for that, even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Co-directors Colin McColl and Cameron Rhodes have put on a respectable production of an enjoyable play, and anyone looking for an old-fashioned good time won’t have anything to complain about. But, if professional theatre companies want to survive and thrive, they need to start looking into the future rather than back at the past.