Midsummer of Love: Review of Sport for Jove’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The summer solstice has just past (21st Dec.) and so appropriately Sport for Jove is staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of their Shakespeare in the park season. Picking a favorite from Shakespeare’s comedies is never going to be easy, but for many people Midsummer is always going to be very close to the top. For most then the plot is well known, but briefly: Athenian youths Lysander and Demetrius are both seeking to marry Hermia. She loves Lysander but her father bids her marry Demetrius. Meanwhile Helena is hopelessly in love with Demetrius, who seemingly despises her. In order to be together Lysander and Hermia plan to steal away from the city. Upon learning this Demetrius goes after them, followed closely by Helena in pursuit of him. The four get lost within a forest populated by fairies, and when the fairy King, Oberon, discovers them he decides to set matters between them right. His servant Puck, though, gets one or two things wrong, leading to many a laugh at their expense.
Thematically, director, Susanna Dowling, has made a number of wonderful choices. The play opens on a military setting. The characters are all in uniform, movements are crisp and colours are drab. However, once the lovers escape to the forest – and the audience, too, is taken into the woodland – things change. The fairies are all adorned in bright, flowing and glittering garments, and possess childlike personas. Sparkling lights hang from trees and fairies’ freewheeling antics turn the forest into a place of indulgence and impulse, creating a stark contrast from the barracks where discipline and propriety must be observed.
This element is certainly conceived. Many see the escapades that occur in the forest as being the happenings of a dream, which is how the characters chose to reflect on the night’s events when they awaken in the morning. The fairy world then can be looked on as a subconscious reflection of the waking world. At the play’s opening the world is in crisis: the lovers are all at odds and the Duke, Theseus, is estranged from his fiancé, Hippolyta. The fairy world is also in crisis with Oberon and Titania quarreling. Only once our inner turmoil is resolved can the conscious world be put into order: our passions and impulses must be satisfied before we can function in a restrictive society. So with Oberon and Titania reconciled, the human world is put to rights; and it is no accident that the actors playing the Duke and Duchess are doubled as the fairy King and Queen.
However, for all this thoughtful interpretation the play falls down somewhat in its execution. Unfortunately the players did not gel and there was an overall lack of direction in performance. The lovers in particular were done a disservice, as their story felt underdeveloped. Adele Querol played the lanky, unlucky in love Helena. Whilst tapping into the pitiful nature of Helena, her performance was laden with constant sobbing – the choice is tiresomely repetitive to the ear. Christopher Stalley played Demetrius, a man in hot pursuit of Hermia. Stalley’s performance is best described as stock – nothing ground breaking though nothing to sniff at. This too, could describe Emma Chelsey as the petite yet feisty Hermia, though Chelsey sometimes struggled with volume out in the open air. Bringing up the rear was Jerome Meyer playing Hermia’s lover, Lysander. Meyer looked uncomfortable at times, both with the language and the character. His portrayal missed several opportunities and was the most scattered, and hammy, of the four.
There were, however, standouts for the evening. Christopher Tomkinson possessed a clear and compelling authority as Oberon, making the most of his leather jacket and aviators. Tomkinson clearly loves his Shakespeare and on his tongue it truly sings. The same can be said for Felix Jozeps who is a delightful Puck. Here Shakespeare meets punk rock and he is as mischievous and playful as any Puck should be. Against this backdrop, however, Francesca Saviage was thoroughly unconvincing as Titania, Oberon’s fairy queen. Under her interpretation, it was difficult to see why Oberon would ever want her back, and there were other times where Saviage seemed to channel a party to a nasty Western suburbs divorce.
The Mechanicals also lacked magic. Jonathan Mill played the vainly ignorant Bottom with little gravitas and was unable to leave an impression. Whilst Richard Hilliar had little to do as Francis Flute, the bellows-mender, and often overplayed for cheap gags; though, he performed rather touchingly in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within a play.
In her note Dowling states that a great part of this production sort to confront the underlying gender imbalance inherent in the piece. This is not immediately apparent in viewing and she may be drawing something of a long bow when it comes to Midsummer. For while there is certainly a male patriarchy in place, Shakespeare’s heroines are not meek or submissive. They are strong women who actively work to subvert the system to their own favour. In a way that does make Dowling’s job easy, as Shakespeare has already done the work to solve the problems she’s perceived. Maybe if greater attention had been given to the show’s pointed weaknesses, instead of what is arguably a minor issue, it would have resulted in a more satisfying product. Sport for Jove has narrowed the pool of actors in order to play two shows ‘in rep’, and arguably a more successful job was done in The Crucible. Casting however, should never resemble a game of Tetris.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing with Sport for Jove until the 25th of January. For more information see: http://www.sportforjove.com.au/theatre-play/midsummer-nights-dream