I think I’ve seen the best performance of a Shakespeare play ever! David Farr’s production of Coriolanus (with Greg Hicks as Caius) was pretty brilliant. Come to think of it, it’s a close call, very close.
I think what pushes this beyond Farr’s production is that the whole of Supple’s show was that excellent – concept, actors, tech – brilliant. With Farr, the concept was superb (samurai through the eyes of Kurosawa inspired concept) and so was Hicks – Greg Hicks was stunning! His electric performance in 2003 is still with me after all of these years (along with Ralph Fiennes’ brilliance in Brand). But Tim Supple and his Midsummer Night’s Dream is the new champ.
Disclaimer: Spoilers is not even a half accurate description about what I’m going to below. Again in the International Arts Festival I programme in my head, this has been programmed so that every Wellingtonian would get the opportunity to see it. Maybe the Festival will (could someone have a word to them?). If you’d like to live in the hope that you will one day see this production (and you should, this is a fantastic production) then please don’t read any further, but read Shakespeare’s play before you go. Just scroll up (or click off to another website if I haven’t got another post) and know that this is a must see production.
Have they gone yet? Yep? Ok …
I’ll start with the basics and see how far I get. I was a bit worried that the production would prove to be disappointing given the level of hype that accompanies it (to be favourably compared to Peter Brook’s Midsummer is as hyped up as you can get in terms of Shakespeare on stage) and I was also concerned that the adulation thrown at this production was more about exoticism then anything else. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was nothing exotic about it, this was just very good theatre. And a very, very good production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I’ve seen more productions than I care to remember, some very good (Propeller’s production in 2003) some pretty bloody awful (oh Peter (no not Brook), you’re a nice guy but what were you thinking?). But I have never seen the women played as strongly as they were in this production. There was absolutely no messing with any of these women, they were brilliant. Hippolyta was as mad as hell with Theseus from the very beginning, Hermia is strong (but her father and Theseus are stronger) and as for Helena, her spaniel speech was from a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and was damn well determined to have her way. She didn’t plead, she reasoned. Titania was a force to be reckoned with, her fairies were violent (as they ripped apart the back of the set and fought Puck and Oberon with sticks) and she oozed sexuality, wrestling control over Oberon and leaving him with no other option than to use magic to enact his revenge. Again, brilliant!
The mechanicals didn’t steal the show, but they were very funny. Instead of the typical representation of Bottom as an over zealous amateur actor desperate to reveal his inner Olivier or Branagh, this Bottom reminded me of that uncle who insists that, no matter what the issue, he knows everything, how it works, where it is and there’s no need to call anyone else – so brilliant is his knowledge. I loved it when he found himself out of his depth as Titania turned her amorous gaze upon him. Of course, in a few seconds he’s an expert lover and fairy king. The actual mechanicals play was earnest and moving, while the nobles may have made light (and at times thoughtless) fun of the players, by the end they were visibly moved too.
I’ve giving you another chance to escape – we’re about to head into geek territory … go on, run.
Casting: This was a very large cast so the few characters that were doubled were significant: Theseus/Oberon, Hippolyta/Titania and Philostrate/Puck. I’m not sure if the Philostrate/Puck doubling is usual (I’d have to look it up) but it worked very well as the two characters seemed to merge so that you weren’t always sure if it was actually Philostrate or Puck in disguise – especially as his costume change (a he undressed from a gold robe to a red loin cloth) always happened on stage.
Titania/Hippolyta and Oberon/Theseus worked nicely too – while the relationship of the two royal couples echoed each other, they were also very distinct. Hippolyta and Theseus were very restrained and you got the feeling that Hippolyta would deck Theseus given the opportunity, but of course couldn’t, so instead seethed with resentment, where as Titania would have no hesitation at kicking Oberon and would probably gloat about it too. Their two final changeovers after Titania and Oberon are reconciled are done on stage too. The first time, they are dressed into the royal human couple. The second time two hangers descend and they undress back into Titania and Oberon.
Text: Well with at least 8 different languages in use (English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Marathi, Sinhalese, Tamil and Malayalam) I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on verse – how about you? I know a few people who have seen this production (and heard a few murmurings in the audience) that they didn’t know what was going on and that reduced their enjoyment a little – I can sympathise having seen Nine Hills, One Valley last night and feeling very disengaged from the play. Luckily I know the play well, so language wasn’t a problem, it was easy for me to figure out from gesture, intonation or the little snatches of Hindi or Sanskrit that I recognised, where we were in the play. As always you have the question: if it isn’t in English, is it Shakespeare? You know what, I’ve debated and debated that question and frankly, I don’t know the answer. I’ve tended in the past to rate non English productions of Shakespeare higher than English language ones because I think they are more faithful to the intentions of the actual text. Sounds like a contradiction right? Well possibly and no not really. I tend to get pissed off with English language ones because either no one has bothered to sit down with the actors and tell them what every single line they are saying means, or the company/director has got so caught up in the poetry of the language that they’ve forgotten that these are just normal words and should be spoken as such. Non English productions avoid these sorts of problems as the translation process means that everyone understands their lines, they can be put into context, they make sense to the actors and they are just words, without historical hang ups. Some English productions succeed (Boyd’s Richard III with Jonathan Slinger or Farr’s Coriolanus with Greg Hicks), some suck (there was this Hamlet in 2003 in Cambridge – so insultingly awful and that I left at the interval, I should have left in the first 5 minutes). Want to see a great foreign language Shakespeare? Rent Omkara, Throne of Blood and Ran. Want a great English Shakespeare? Rent Titus and Richard III (with Ian McKellan as R3).
Set: There was a small apron at the front of the stage with two thin reservoirs built into it and a water instrument/stone/thingy in the middle. The stage itself was thrust although most of the action was directed to the front of the stage. The play began with a grey covered floor, a white back wall and three entrances with an upper platform that juts out from the wall. As the scene moves to the forest (when Philostrate disrobes into Puck), Puck pulls up the grey floor to reveal the dirt beneath. The back wall rattles and the white paper wall is ripped off the bamboo grid by descending fairies. The grid, the platform, the flown ropes and silks are used very well to create a variety of levels during the performance. Titania’s bower were two long flown silks tied together in the middle. Titania sat on the knot and drew the silks around her shoulders and feet so that she was fully enclosed – the final effect was a red chrysalis from which she would emerge.
Set pieces that stood out and I haven’t found a place to put them:
Start of the play – Philostrate/Puck enters as the final audience members drip into the auditorium. He walks down to the apron dips his hands into each reservoir and places them onto the water instrument. As he works his hands to create a hum the lights dim. His music is broken as as Hippolyta and Theseus storm onto stage. Philostrate/Puck remains onstage through out until he finally disrobes and becomes Puck.
The Indian boy – yes, there was an Indian boy who appeared silently every now and then, Titania was very protective and fond of him as if he were her own son.
Magic flowers – nothing in this production is gentle (with the possible exception of Thisbe), flowers are gently wiped along eyelids, they are crushed in a fist and then smeared along the eyes, the victim shudders at the effect and then quietens back into a slumber. I don’t know why, but this approach typifies the style of the production. Strong, committed movement and gesture.
Bottom – yes he has donkey’s ears and a large wooden phallus. At one stage the fairies tie strings to him as if he were a great beast and try to contain his energy. I’ll just add clever use of puppetry with said wooden phallus …
The break up and gulling of the lovers – this one is a particular favourite. As all of the lovers finally converge, Puck walks past them unseen setting up poles around the edge of the stage. He then brings out white elastic and starts to attach it randomly to the poles, walking across the stage creating a web that the couples have to work themselves around, the more angry and frustrated they get, the more tangled they become in Puck’s web. When Oberon enters and starts chasing Puck around the stage, the two move smoothly and quickly, unhampered by the web.
Titania awakes from the spell: She hits Oberon, he’s very apologetic physically and they make up.
Hippolyta softens to Theseus – it happens at the discovery of the lovers. You feel that a new understanding and state of mutual respect has been reached by the royal couple.
End of the mechanical’s play – a lovely mish mash of Indian folk styles, you had bits of Garba and Bhangra mixed in. A nice contrast with the final dance by the fairies which appeared to be derived from classical forms like Bharat Natayam and Kathak.
As I have sat here for the last couple of days recalling my memories of the play, I get more and more excited about this production. I can’t think of a fault – oh wait, yeah, there were some actors who, when they turned their backs to the audience, became inaudible … meh, it’s a small thing in the scheme of greatness. Yes, indeed, I think we can confidently call this: Best. Production. Of. A. Shakespeare. Play. Ever.