Sweet dreams are made of these: Robin Langfield Newnham reviews dearfever’s modern re-imagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the unique venue of Cellar Door.
It’s important to note, before everything else, that The Dream is more of an experience than a play. And it certainly was an experience. Walking into a place that normally serves as a club, I was assaulted by red strings hanging from the ceiling like entrails, dangling emotionally aggressive notes (I stopped to read a few – they came across as written by a psycho ex-girlfriend) and capturing the attention only slightly more than the woman yelling garbled abuse at herself around the corner.
Although I went with friends, it didn’t take long to realise that the experience was bettered for walking around alone. Rooms would be occupied by characters acting out scenes or repeating lines and could be explored at whatever rate one desired. As a concept, I really enjoyed this – it’s drawn from the theatre company “Punchdrunk”, but still served as a novel adventure for most people in the crowd. Moreover, Cellar Door as a venue served perfectly, having an upper floor and an underground one, which was neatly turned into a divide between the human world and the fairy one.
However, this did lead to a bit of a lack of direction – I managed to miss most of the storylines of both Mechanicals (the bumbling fools who put on the “play within a play” Midsummer Night’s Dream incorporates) and the Lovers (who are supposedly the central story). It wasn’t until afterwards that I discovered a girl who’d been wandering around dressed as a clown was supposed to be Bottom.
A lack of direction alone doesn’t matter: the entire performance was clearly designed to emulate a dream (surprise surprise) and for the first half hour, it certainly felt like it. Wandering alone from room to room, trying to work out who was part of the play and who was a confused observer, I certainly could have been either asleep or very drunk. But once the characters had been identified, I can’t help but feel that it lost some of its draw. After an hour everyone had picked favourites and it was a common sight to see crowds trailing after individual characters as they transposed from one area to the next.
Moreover, there was little reason to attempt to escape the fairy world. The dim, mysterious lighting, the eerily erotic figures who constantly danced around – not to mention the fact that most of the meat of the play, as far as I could tell, was happening there – these were all confined to the underground levels, whereas the upper floor became little more than a chatty drinking area with a couple of characters occasionally dropping by.
A more major problem was dealing with the audience. When one steps into a theatre, one has to allow themselves a suspension of disbelief. That is, you allow the actors to assume their roles and you don’t treat them as people you’d talk to in the street. With a club and an open environment, there was no such barrier. While no one openly harassed the performers, unnerving whispers were met with laughs and the slightly cockier young men attempted to seduce some of the more attractive actresses. To the credit of the company, they all reacted well in character, but for the rest of the audience it served to dispel some of the theatrical power the very intense performance should have had.
For me, a few characters really stood out. Hippolyta, the somewhat-chained trophy wife of Theseus, spent her time moping and drinking and complaining to anyone who would listen, before charging forth to attack Theseus and being savagely beaten down. While a little repetitive after a few scenes, the actress did well to keep her demeanour throughout.
The stars of the show for me, though, and it’s worth bearing in mind that this was influenced by where I spent my time, were the faeries. Not so much Oberon and Titania, but the small gaggle of crazies led by Puck. Puck herself drew me out of the crowd and quite enchantingly whispered sweet nothings in my ear until I was more or less a puddle on the floor. While this alone would have been enough to win me over forever, the fact that the actress was able to maintain an extraordinary closeness (not only with me – she was touching people’s faces and performing the same routine with others all night) and keep eye contact without ever losing the sense of her character really shone in my eyes. But then, Puck’s always been a charmer.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable experience that suffered a bit from being slightly too great in length and the necessity of incorporating real people. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in something new and different, but I don’t think it’s going to be for everyone.
Robin Langfield Newnhambookmark me