Transfigured night: SUDS’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s perennial masterpieces – an effervescent concoction of magic, darkness, dreams, comedy, and love, it is the first Shakespeare play I studied at school, the first one I loved wholeheartedly, and certainly one of the best introductions to the Bard’s work, and a play for all ages. Presented here by SUDS (Sydney University’s Dramatic Society) in the Seymour Centre’s York theatre, this ‘Dream’ has been given a slight reworking - inspired by a queer reading of the play - which opens up new spaces within the four-hundred-year-old play and proves it can still be a fresh experience, even if this is not your first encounter with the play.

Director Bennett Sheldon writes in his note in the program that “Midsummer isn’t a play about love, or gender, or nature, or even humans playing walls. [It is] about our inability to look beyond our own sphere of self-conceit, and the effect that has around us.” It’s a simple enough statement, but its reverberations throughout this incarnation of the play are profound and refreshing. While perhaps foregrounding same-sex relationships, what Sheldon and his dramaturg (Nadia Bracegirdle) have done, is show that the four lovers are not (and perhaps should not) be constrained by the genders they are written in; by switching a gender of the character but not their text or the way it is played dramatically, the play takes on a new dimension, a new meaning, and it is refreshing to see this executed with integrity, audacity, and passion. Thus, it makes no real difference to the narrative fabric of Shakespeare’s play when Lysander becomes a woman (she ends up with Hermia), and Helena becomes Helios (and ends up with Demetrius). If anything, old lines ring with new potential, the lovers’ quarrel in the forest is given a new dimension – new resonances – and the deus ex machina (or “Theseus ex machina,” as dramaturg Nadia Bracegirdle neatly calls it in the program) does not change because of it (if anything, it slightly overlooks it.)
Staged on the York theatre’s thrust stage, Jess Zlotnik’s set of a white floor and blocks recalls Peter Brook’s seminal 1970 production, albeit without the trapeze or clowns. What it does allow for though, is a fluidity of playing, and the space becomes everything from the Athenian court, to a forest, the faerie realm, and back again, without anything to tell us where we are other than the words. When not in the scene, Sheldon has the cast stand in a line at the back of the stage along with audience members who, as I understand it, were meant to represent the forest; while this is not clearly enunciated, it makes us complicit in the story, makes us aware that this is not just a story but a portrait of us as humans. In this regard it is effective, if a little jarring at first.
One thing that is not doubted about this production is the passion and delight each member of the cast takes in performing. The lovers – Michael Cameron’s Demetrius, Tom Mendes’ Helios, Jessica Orchard’s Hermia, and Jane Hughes’ Lysander – are all fiery, passionate, determined, and suitably love-struck and indignant, and there is a beautiful moment late in the play, as the fractured relationships reach a crescendo thanks to Puck’s meddling, where they run around and through the space, through the on-stage observers, shouting, falling, wrestling, throwing themselves at each other in passionate rage. While the practice of doubling the roles of Theseus and Oberon, and Hippolyta and Titania is common practice, what it affords a production is the opportunity to show the similarities between the faerie realm and the human world, and show that they are very much two sides of the one coin. And it is the case here: Dominic Scarf’s Theseus/Oberon is strong and commanding, though not unbending; Tess Green’s Hippolyta/Titania is stately and equally commanding, and her song is suitably rich and haunting. Eloise Westwood’s Puck is, at times, downplayed, but her epilogue – Puck’s beautifully-worded plea for forgiveness (“Give me your hands if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends”) – is a poignant, personal, and heartfelt moment that I’m sure would make even Will himself proud. Anna Della Marta has a wonderful beat as Peaseblossom, Bottom’s long-suffering faerie servant. The Rude Mechanicals are effectively the comic-relief in the play, but I don’t think I’ve quite seen them as human and madcap as this bunch here. From Jim Southwell’s stockings-wearing Bottom; to Harry Winsome’s youthful Flute; Madeleine Gerard’s tipsy Snout; William Hendriks’ Starveling with a penchant for tai-chi; April Saleeba’s painfully shy and sweet Snug whose excitement is almost-tangible; and Tess Sterland’s Quince who mouths the words alongside her cast, often to her dismay… There is a roughness, a rawness, and a beautiful youthful exuberance on display here from each and every actor that makes this production a joy (as well as a lot of fun) to watch.
While I believe that it usually takes a scene or two for anyone to get the measure of Shakespeare’s text – regardless of whether you are an actor, audience member, or Shakespeare-tragic – it takes a little longer than usual here for this ‘Dream’ to kick into gear. The first twenty minutes here – until the Mechanicals arrive on the scene, and Puck is dismissed to find the flower for Oberon’s love-potion – is slow-going, with some of Shakespeare’s text delivered in a semi-declamatory way, but I’m not holding this against these actors. Shakespeare’s dialogue is hard to deliver well for an experienced actor, and the fact that these actors – many of whom are in their first Shakespeare production and/or first year of studying – is exhilarating and more-than-admirable. In these opening scenes – as in any play – Shakespeare sets up his world, the boundaries, the parameters, and only then does he literally play with them. Once the lovers enter the forest, once Bottom becomes “translated” (or ass-ified) - once the confusion and the magic takes hold of Shledon’s production - it flies. 
By the end, almost a neat two hours’ traffic on the stage – after the Mechanicals’ play has made us laugh and cry (and cry with laughter) at their bumbling sincerity; after Puck has ‘restored amends’ – we are sent into the night with a smile, our hearts full of magic, and perfectly content in the knowledge that this ‘Dream’ was one worth staying awake for. This might have been the sixth ‘Dream’ I’ve seen in the past seven or eight years, but it proves that there is always something new in these plays if you are willing to play with them, wrestle with them afresh, and make them your own.

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