No dreams here: STC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays. You can read me bang on about it on numerous occasions on this blog. This will not be another one of them. This is the fourth Dream I’ve seen this year, and it was also the most eagerly awaited, and certainly one of the most anticipated shows of this year. But as is often the case, the greater the expectations, the harder the fall, and the more painful it is when it doesn’t work. And so it is with Kip Williams’ production for Sydney Theatre Company.
This production seems to owe a passing debt to Peter Brook’s seminal 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production which toured the world (you know the one I mean). But where Brook was rebelling – and quite rightly – against the accumulated gossamer and Romantic notion of the Dream that had built up in theatrical tradition since the 1800s, this production almost seems to want to shock us. In seeking to draw out the darkness within Shakespeare’s play and to serve, in some respects, as a corrective to the accumulated detritus around The Dream both locally and abroad, Williams and his team create a psycho-sexual space for the play to sit in and in doing so, impose a stark and austere world of lumpy fairies, hooded figures, and semi-Lynchian images upon the text without too much consideration for the textual engine at work beneath it. In doing so, Williams removes the ability of the audience to dream, and thereby denies the production its power; by being all intellectual and deliberate and calculated about it, it can only come of as quite superficial.


Geeks bearing myths: Montague Basement’s Metamorphoses

After going from strength to strength in their first two years, Sydney-based collective Montague Basement have decided to speak of ‘forms changed into new entities.’ In their adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, they have taken the fifteen books of epic Roman poetry and condensed them into seventy minutes of smart deconstructions and reversals; a smorgasbord of transformations and transgressions, a riot of godly shenanigans. “With sincere apologies to Ovid,” the disclaimer reads; you can almost see the “Not really” written in small letters underneath it. And while it works (and when it really does fly, it is marvelous), a lot of the references and parallels – the cleverness and intertextuality – comes from a familiarity with Ovid’s stories, something I don’t think we quite have as much of today as we’d like to think we do.


Rock this ground: Shakespeare’s Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This is celebrating Shakespeare in the truest possible way: come in, drink beer, shout at the stage, come and go as you please and get involved.
– Emma Rice

This morning I realised I’ve seen a dozen or so versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the past thirteen years, either on stage, on video, or in a cinema. Without a doubt it is Shakespeare’s most evergreen play, in that its magic, beauty, strangeness and wonder never fades, and can withstand whatever a production throws at it. When Emma Rice was announced as the third artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London last year, I was immediately excited to see what she would produce. Now, eighteen months later, as her first production at the Globe comes to a close, the BBC decided to live-stream the final performance of Rice’s Dream to all and sundry; playing at 6.30pm BST, I pulled an all-nighter and sat up in bed watching it at 3am Australian-time, watching the darkness encroach around the Globe as the sky grew light outside my window. If her first Dream is any indication, under Rice’s leadership the Globe is set to transcend the heavens of invention, if it hasn’t already done so straight off the bat.


The secret history: STC’s The Hanging

People disappear all the time.  Ask any policeman.  Better yet, ask a journalist…  Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.
 – Diana Gabaldon, Cross Stitch

Since it first appeared in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has been seared into our cultural conscience. Following Malthouse’s production earlier in the year – an adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, rather than of Peter Weir’s film – Sarah Goodes brings us Angela Betzien’s The Hanging, a contemporary take on the missing child story that has haunted us since the earliest days of white settlement. You can see it in the paintings of Frederick McCubbin, the claustrophobic vision of the untamed bush all around us, the impossibly high horizons and tiniest glimmers of sky too far away; you can see it in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Top of the Lake, and The Kettering Incident; in Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby and The Splinter, in Jasper Jones, When The Rain Stops Falling; in the disappearances of the Beaumont children, Azaria Chamberlain and, more recently, Madeleine McCann. And while these events are in no way connected, they each capture our imaginations, and fuel our insecurities about possession, sexuality, colonialism, and our (lack of) control over nature.
Betzien’s play follows her recent plays Mortido and The Dark Room in the crime genre, and Children of the Black Skirt in her exploration of the Australian Gothic trope, and manages to combine the two genres within the frame of a crime thriller which owes several obvious debts to Picnic at Hanging Rock, as well as The Virgin Suicides, Heavenly Creatures, The Secret History, and The Catcher in the Rye. These nods do not detract from the story, nor the revelations and their ramifications, but act as a series of refracting mirrors, to bounce ideas and references off each other to create a new work that ripples with secrets, latent sexuality and its potency, as well as capitalising on the eeriness and terror of the Australian bush that has haunted our national psyche for centuries.


A dream Dream: Theatre for A New Audience’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps Shakespeare’s most perennially evergreen play, in that its magic, beauty, strangeness and wonder never fades, but grows richer and deeper and more strange with every consecutive production. While it was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school, it is still the one play of Shakespeare’s that I love wholeheartedly and completely, and this production not only proves why, but is perhaps the most mercurial, effervescent, and beguiling Dream I have seen.
This production, first staged at New York’s Theatre for A New Audience in 2014, is directed by Julie Taymor, perhaps most well known for The Lion King musical as much as for the circumstances surrounding her Spider-Man musical, Turn Off The Dark. Known for her wild inventiveness, kaleidoscopic approach to style and design, and her reluctance to conform to expectations, this Dream lives up to its name and positively flies. Towards the end of the production’s season, Taymor and her collaborators were given money through Ealing Studios to film the production and create a cinematic Dream which brought its stage incarnation to even more beguiling life. Enlisting the help of Rodrigo Prieto (who previously shot Taymor’s film Frida), Taymor filmed four performances from four angles each, then spent the intervening days filming pick-up shots – close-ups, cutaways, shots you wouldn’t necessarily be able to achieve with an audience during a performance. Working with some eighty hours of footage, Taymor and editor Barbara Tulliver spent several months creating this cinematic Dream, drawing us further into the world of fairies, dark magic, shadows, and desire.


Copping Flack: Belvoir’s Twelfth Night

Shakespeare’s festive comedies – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night – are bound within a series of strict societal rules, rules which govern behaviours, moods, actions and reactions, as well as language and plot. They also perform a very specific function, namely allowing the society’s capacity for anarchy or misrule to find a full expression in an environment where mischief-making can be corrected, apologised for, and in some cases, released. Punning on the notion of ‘will’ – the idea of desire and love (and/or lust), as much as autonomy, as well as being a euphemism for penis – Shakespeare somehow manages to create a play which, like Rosalind at the end of As You Like It, asks us to cherish what pleases us and forgive the rest.
Eamon Flack’s As You Like It, seen at Belvoir in 2011, took Shakespeare’s play and infused it with a wit, warmth, and fullness of life and expression that barely seemed to be contained within the two walls of the Belvoir stage, and later spilled over into the street outside. In creating that production, Flack and his collaborators “gave [themselves] the same task Shakespeare gave himself and his company” – that is, to (re)create the kind of experience that Shakespeare might have written to be performed on Shrove Tuesday at Richmond Palace in 1599, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I. In that instance, As You Like It became “a show about a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation, performed for a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation,” that is to say the theatre. I mention all this in prologue to ground Flack’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last great festive comedy – Twelfth Night, or What you will – also perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest, within a kind of self-critical feedback mirror.
In his director’s notes for Twelfth Night, Flack writes about the holy days and feast days when controlled anarchy (such as pageants and rough-theatre) was permitted. He also says that for Twelfth Night, he and his collaborators set themselves the task of “performing the play almost entirely as written[,] partly as a boast and partly as a warning, because some of the play is now archaic nonsense… [We] have taken the play on its own terms and plunged headlong into its strange poetry because the archaic oddity of the play is what makes it glorious.” Except that it’s not. Not really. Not much at all.


Fallen from the sky: Ensemble’s A History of Falling Things

This piece was originally written for artsHub.

A romantic-comedy about two keraunothnetophobes, James Graham’s A History of Falling Things is a gentle, humorous and ultimately moving play about overcoming your fears and venturing outside of your comfort zone (literally, in this case).
Robin and Jacqui are both keraunothnetophobes – that is, they both suffer the fear of things falling from the sky. When they both meet online in a chatroom for others like themselves, they find each other reaching out across the space between them, through their screens, and ultimately facing their fears.


Sport for Jove's Away

Michael Gow’s Away is something of a mainstay on the high school syllabus, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a student who hasn’t studied it (or at the very least, heard of it), sometime in the past fifteen years or so. Set in the late 1960s, it is a coming-of-age story on both a personal level as well as a cultural and societal level; the Vietnam War is in full-force, conscription is very much a reality, Indigenous Australians were constitutionally recognised, and the women’s rights movement was swiftly gaining momentum. Produced by Sport for Jove in the play’s thirtieth-anniversary year, Gow’s Away here feels old, starts to show its age and, despite some nuanced moments, ultimately fails to live up to its status as a classic.
Essentially a series of vignettes – although there is a narrative progression which runs throughout – Gow’s play follows three families over their Christmas holidays, and details in soft-focus their fears, loves, losses, dreams, and the hurdles they must overcome. Performed in the Seymour Centre’s vast York Theatre, something of Gow’s intimacy is lost even if the humanity at the heart of the story remains.


Nowra or never: Don’t Look Away’s Inner Voices

First produced in 1977 at the Nimrod (now Belvoir) Downstairs theatre, Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices was written in the middle of the ‘New Wave’ period of Australian playwriting. Loosely defined as the late-1960s to the early-1980s, the ‘New Wave’ had similar flourishes in all other sectors of the performing arts and society, including film, literature, and music, and sought to bring a distinctly Australian sensibility to their work, as well as an experimentalism borrowed from European theatre, in a bid to distinguish themselves from the inherent Britishness that had been previously maintained. By the late 1970s, “the visionary enthusiasm and common sense of purpose that had characterised the New Wave were wearing off,” as John McCallum writes in Belonging. Out of the growing sense of disillusionment with the lack of unifying cohesiveness amongst their output, came Stephen Sewell and Louis Nowra, whose work was more political, less noticeably Australian, and “more cinematic in dramaturgy.” It is from this context, that Inner Voices springs, and Nowra’s interests and influences are as eclectic as his exploitation of genre and style. 
While we may now be open to the definition of what constitutes an Australian play, in the early 1980s it was still a point of contention that a play set overseas was not inherently Australian. Looking at Nowra’s Inner Voices today – forty years after it first appeared, in something of a mainstage revival – we can see that it is very much an Australian play, irrespective of the fact it is set in eighteenth century Russia. “The first of Nowra’s plays to attract wide attention,” Inner Voices is the story of a young prince, Ivan, who has been locked away in a prison for years, knowing only his name. Following the death of his mother Catherine the Great, Ivan is installed as a puppet-tsar by opportunistic advisers who want power for themselves. But as Ivan’s taste for power and savagery grows, so too do the troubles enveloping his kingdom, until Ivan achieves a savage retribution and comes into his own world.


The karate kid: Belvoir & Stuck Pigs Squealing’s Back at the Dojo

The world according to Lally Katz is one populated with fortune tellers, Hungarian neighbours, golems, forgotten vaudeville troupes, the Apocalypse Bear, and the Hope Dolphin. It’s a world of magic, where things are not quite what they seem, where everything is a story in one way or another, and characters often find themselves returning to Earth sooner or later. After the success of Neighbourhood Watch and Stories I Want To Tell You In Person, and having read a number of her previous plays, the promise of a new play by Lally Katz was tantalising, and came with more than a few expectations. But even though the story is drawn from her own family mythology and features a character based on her father as a young man, it doesn’t quite feel like the play it should be, the play it wants to be, and as a result feels a little bit hollow, though not without heart.
Back at the Dojo – a co-production with Belvoir and Melbourne company Stuck Pigs Squealing, Katz’s former co-conspirators – is inspired by the story of her parents’ meeting. Drifting through 1960s America, Danny stumbles across a karate dojo in New Jersey and, like the other members of the dojo, finds his way again with the help of the strict but not unbending sensei, and a young woman called Lois. Set against this, in something of a stark contrast, is the other end of the story, that of Dan and Lois (now older and in contemporary suburban Australia), and their granddaughter who has decided to become Patti Smith. It’s a seemingly gloriously Katzian collage, drawn from real life, chance meetings, and the talents of her collaborators, but something is missing in both the script in a very basic narrative way, and in the production.