Sweet Dream: SUDS’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Andy Zephyr reviews SUDS’ 2015 major production A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was enjoyable and evocative theatre. The cast and crew should be congratulated for their jovial performance, professional demeanour and clever staging, and the rough grit that can only come from a student-run performance. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed SUDS’ honesty and forthrightness with respect to gender, sex, sexuality and romantic interactions, and acknowledging the disadvantages and personal struggle from those same-sex attracted.

Whilst it could’ve been easy to feel lost between the dual-characters if you were a newcomer to Midsummer, the alternating passion and bitterness between Tess Green (as Titania and Hypolyta) and Dominic Scarf (as Oberon and Theseus) made for particularly picturesque moments; stubborn and powerful figures on stage, painted bodies in red, quarrelling juxtaposed to embracing, moments before. Director Bennett Sheldon remarks on ego and selfishness and how they are “preventing action to save nature and the living environment” and fit perfectly in the Millennial’s constant anxiety over the stagnate work around climate justice.

The stark black and white uniforms of the lovers, the patchwork mechanicals, and the faerie monarchs dressed dark as night all help establish and reconfigure the boundaries and culture of actor/character relations. Even in the tragicomedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, when the lovers as audience have found peace between themselves, they show complete inability to extend support to the mechanical’s theatrics. Their bitchy and often condescending remarks give way to the audience’s awkward laughter, unaware that we too will forget moral lessons learnt from the play in mere hours. We are implicated in the moment to highlight the metanarrative, leaving us to question our doubts, doubt our memories, and eventually allowing us to find comfort in harsh realities becoming a dream.

Dreamscapes help the lovers, the cast, and their audience ignore what we so often wish to be ignorant of. Jane Hughes (Lysander), Jessica Orchard (Hermia), Tom Mendes (Helios) and Michael Cameron (Demetrius) as the four lovers give us beautiful romance on stage. Pickled by internalised homophobia and examples of LGBTQIA+ partner abuse—all of which society gleefully overlooks when presented with it in real life—are shown in Midsummer. The show highlights the creation of cycles that legitimise homophobia and bigotry; continual dismissal of behaviour as dreams imitates this often destructive, taught behaviour. We continue to deny our wrongs, or confusion and, with this particular “queering” of the play, our own identities.

Midsummer does not entirely give itself over “queering”. There are fantastic differences between same-sex couples who are men and women, and this is the biggest hole in this translation; all couplings seem to follow the same assembly instructions for homosexual romance. Whilst obviously Midsummer is built on assumed monogamy, I had assumed that this cultural phenomenon was on the table to be mocked, poked fun at, or cheated. I found nothing of the sort. I didn’t expect a Judith Butler level of awareness but I certainly wanted more, and will continue to want more, of the complexities of queer politics in SUDS.

Nadia Bracegirdle (Midsummer’s dramaturge) notes specifically “if Shakespeare is so universal, it should make no unconscionable difference if Helena becomes Helius and Lysander a woman,” adding, “With an entire cast and crew full of sensitivity and depth, all aspects of the play have gained nuance I had never before imagined of a Shakespearean comedy” and nothing higher could be said of the persons involved. Mendes, and particularly Orchard must be commended for their powerful presence and emotional acuity. Cameron particularly strikes at heartstrings during early scenes, ostensibly fighting for Hermia’s love whilst implying desire and longing for Helios.

I sometimes wished for more clarity in staging but, given the importance of performance in the round to the piece,  faults are excusable. Not only did this help construct symmetrical and patterned interactions, but also created $6 tickets for those who wish to engage with theatre without having to make a significant material commitment. Perhaps the ephemeral, winding nature of this production has brought in those who aren’t otherwise attending theatre shows or who’ve fallen out of the habit, but economic flexibility and a chance to be among the fun is the direction we must follow.

That is the grit of student theatre. It is a path that allows theatre to continue adapting to its environment, making Shakespeare relevant, paving lifelong involvement in creative industries, and influencing practise to keep the form alive, thriving and accessible in 2015.

I didn’t just enjoy myself, I was as captivated as those struck by love-in-idleness.