I'm glad that I decided to take a night off work to see this show and Black Watch (which I'll write about in the next post). Both shows have a large amount of international acclaim and will be talked about for years. Tim Supple's Midsummers' is poised to be the new reference point for future productions of the play, as Peter Brook's 1970 white box production has been for the last 30 years.
Sitting behind me at the performance was a professional stage designer who had seen the Brook version. He said it was obvious that Supple had used Brook's production as a jumping off point. I've only ever seen stills of the 1970 show but my memory has always been lots of aerial elements to it. So did this production. However, Supple has created a riot of colour to play off of a white backdrop that slowly gets destroyed over the course of the evening, revealing a jungle-gym structure that is used extensively in the fairy world.
There were musicians on either side of the stage and along the front a shallow pool of water. In the middle was a smooth, dark stone that Puck plays by running water along the top and running his hands along its smooth top at various points in the story. (You can see it in a brief moment during the video that runs on the site link above.) It put me in mind of the Shiva Linga, an ancient object of worship in Hindu culture.
Sexuality and sexual imagery play a large part in this production. The gentleman designer sitting behind me was delighted that Supple grasped that a lot of the play's action revolves around the sexual discord between Titania and Oberon, a sexual energy radiates throughout the woods, and leads to Bottom's transformation into what was considered the most virile animal in Elizabethan England. There are other moments added in which bear this out. I found it fascinating that when Hermia confronts Demetrius after Lysander has taken off to find Helena, he kisses he and she responds before pulling away. Helena responds to Lysander's kiss in the same way when he finds her. Considering there is nothing in the text to indicate either woman is attracted to these men, I found it an interesting choice. When Bottom is transformed, not only does he gain ears but an appendage in front that looked to me like a elongated acorn. Titania's reaction to him is completely sexual and when they return on stage after going off to bed, his appendage is now red in the bottom third. This called to mind the practice of putting out the bedsheets the morning after the nuptial night to prove the bride's virginity.
I have always hated Bottom and have always wished for the mechanicals to just go away. This is the first time I've actually enjoyed them and liked Bottom. My guess is because the mechanicals actual feel like villagers who really like each other and work well together. The sense of village carried through on all their scenes. In that context, Bottom comes off as that guy who is a little full of himself but means well and his heart is in the right place. He also felt completely natural in whatever context he found himself in, which is something I hadn't seen before. And when they perform for the court, they maintain their simple dignity in the face of the court's mocking, culminating in Francis Flute's heartbreakingly real performance of Thisbe discovering her lover's body. This performance shifts the court's mood and with it, the play, leading to a truly joyous conclusion.
I was especially looking forward to the multilingual nature of the show, having been enthralled by Frank Theatre's tri-lingual production of Crown of Blood (Macbeth) in Brisbane in 2002. That element did not disappoint. Supple made sure that the vital information was always delivered in English, and the actors speaking in their native tongues gave the lines a force, which in turn brought up the game of the English speaking actors. Knowing the story so well, I didn't feel I had lost anything.
The reviews I read raved about the male actors but it was the actors playing Titania/Hippolyta, Hermia, Helena and Peaseblossom who captivated me. They all had this aliveness that just vibrated in their voices and in their bodies. They wore their sensuality easily.
The transitions from the court to the woods and back were masterfully done and the use of costumes being torn apart or pieces added on brought an added dimension and a richness to the work. This production deserves the acclaim. The problem for me was that it suffered from having to follow Black Watch, which I had seen a couple of hours earlier and just blew me away. After seeing that show, this one for me was merely very good.