A Midsummer Night’s Dream? (Project Arts Centre, Dublin) – A Theatre Review
O, then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turn’d a heaven unto a hell!
After the garish costumes and goofy antics of A Comedy of Errors in the Abbey Theatre, it was a strange sort of relief to see that director Jason Byrne’s next foray into Shakespeare would be back with the Loose Canon Theatre Company in the more experiment-friendly environs of the Project Arts Centre. Strange? Well, the marketing folks were emphasising “donkey fucking” in their promotional material for this production. However, animal rights activists need not go reaching for their placards, the scene in question is decorous enough to have pleased the Irish censor’s office a half-century ago. Instead, the performance lingers on Titiania (Catriona Ni Mhurchu)’s growing sense of horror when the charm is lifted from her eyes the following morning. Equally, the confusion and then the anguish on the faces of Hermia and Helena, as the targets of their affection behave in beastly fashion towards them, is notably emphasised here. Even the happy reconciliation of the lovers at the end transpires under the blinding glare of the rising sun.
Love hurts, right?
For all that, this is a play that takes its tongue and plants it firmly in adjacent cheek. The male fairies (Barry O’Connor and Phil Kingston) wear heavy metal t-shirts, smoke copiously, and plod about the stage. Meanwhile, Louise Lewis, as Helena, is hysterical as she frantically tries to shoo away the unwelcome attention of two suddenly ardent male suitors. Unsurprisingly, then, Bottom also gets in on the act, with a slovenly-looking Ger Kelly splendidly cast as the play’s artless self-aggrandised anti-hero, replete with a bray loud enough to wake all of Greystones.
Set on a near-empty stage that is ringed by white floor-to-ceiling curtains, the impression beforehand is that this is a setting more appropriate for a contemporary dance performance. Indeed, under the direction of choreographer Ella Clarke, then, the barefooted actors frequently sweep across the space in pursuit of each other. To be naughty about it, perhaps the movement here is a little too free-flowing for a forest setting. At the same time, such motion is suggestive of the mating dances that do take place in the wild. Not that donkeys disco, of course.
In the end, though, what this production excels in bringing out is those thorny questions regarding how love works. Why is Helena slavishly attracted to a man who despises her? What chemical reaction goes off in our brains that that we will tolerate shortcomings in one person that would be deal-breakers in anyone else? Why do we hurt those whom we love the most? And why is polygamy taboo (okay, so I might be sneaking that last one in)? Part of the success here is how the five-strong cast take on multiple roles with barely even token efforts made to change from one part to the other (cheekily, even video and audio from yesteryear performances are employed to fill in some of the minor roles). As such, the repetition inherent to the play’s three-stranded plot becomes quite obvious. Moreover, by stripping back much of the standard Shakespearean frippery, it inevitably become easier to see the wood for the trees.
Perhaps, though, the questions this performance most leaves you with is “who was old Billy’s dealer and are those magic mushrooms still obtainable today?”
Photo Credit: Ros Kavanagh