Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | May 3-26
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so many things to so many people. It’s a play they studied in high school or university. Or maybe their favourite Shakespeare play. Or to some, the only bearable Shakespeare. Or it’s the quintessential tale about lover’s folly. At any rate, it’s a play that has been produced more times than can be counted, by companies amateur and professional, and with as many alternate interpretations as there are productions. What the Auckland Theatre Company and co-directors Ben Crowder and Colin McColl achieve with their version is a production that is not only different, but significant.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream needs no introduction. A plot summary barely gets to the heart of what’s great about the work, but in short: Hippolyta (Goretti Chadwick) and Theseus (Peter Daube) are celebrating their wedding; Hermia (Brooke Williams) loves Lysander (Josh McKenzie); Helena (Laurel Devenie) loves Demetrius (Jono Kenyon); and things get muddled up by the meddling of the mischievous Puck (Raymond Hawthorne). Elsewhere, Peta Quince (Rima Te Wiata) and her company of actors, most notably Nick Bottom (Andrew Grainger), rehearse a play to perform for Hippolyta and Theseus. Elsewhere, the gods Titania (Alison Bruce) and Oberon (Xavier Horan) fight over a changeling boy. It’s a chaotic play, with an amazing amount of plot to cover in only 100 minutes, and yet it’s a fun, engaging 100 minutes, and none of the story is lost amid the chaos.
The first thing that’s striking about this adaptation is the set by Tony Rabbit. It’s a very modern look for a very modern production: a metallic slope facing the audience, a stage upon a stage with a raised platform up the back, and beautiful curtains draped down the wings and across the roof. It’s also exceedingly red, a canny choice for a play bursting at the seams with love, and Rabbit’s complementary lighting design only highlights and brings the colour temperature out. It also contrasts effectively with Nic Smillie’s ingenious costumes, illuminating the blacks, greys, and whites so the actors are literally flushed with red, with love. It’s what directors Crowder and McColl are known for, and this production only confirms that they’re two of New Zealand’s most visually accomplished directors.
As well as being ripe for visual feast, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a great actor’s showcase: there are many plush parts, many great lines, and many different directions to take them in. It’s a pleasure to say that the accomplished cast rip into these roles with vigour and aplomb. The central quartet is dynamic, from Brooke Williams’s nervy butterfly-like charisma, to Josh McKenzie’s goofy forthrightness, to Jono Kenyon’s earnest amorousness, and finally and most excellently, to Laurel Devenie’s awkward, complex, and fiery Helena. Raymond Hawthorne’s Puck clashes effectively with the rest of the play; his is a more sedate and insidious Puck, but one with the playfulness that makes the role so great. The Mechanicals all riff well with each other, and each actor gets their own spot to shine, even within this ensemble. A personal highlight for me was Goretti Chadwick as Hippolyta, who gets to perform perhaps the only example of a Shakespearean rap I’ve ever seen, and makes a major impact with a reasonably small role. The entire cast is an abundance of riches, and this is most evident in the final passages of the play, where all the subplots dovetail beautifully, and each actor is given a chance to shine, and shine brightly they do.
Another highlight of the production is John Gibson’s guttural score, excellently performed by musician Brett Adams, who switches between guitars seamlessly. It emphasises the modernity of this production, but also helps to underscore the best parts of the text: the insane comedy, the heartfelt lovers, the madness of the gods. It’s representative of everything this production does right, and it does do more or less everything right, balancing the craziness with the earnest and the heartfelt, while never losing sight of what the play is about through all the chaos: Love.
Returning to what I said at the start of my review, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t your everyday conservative Shakespeare performance—it’s a significant one. It pushes the much-loved 16th century text up against a 21st century style, and delivers something that is not only an actor’s showcase and a visual feast, but a lot of goddamned smart, well-intentioned fun. And that’s always something we can always use more of.