Theatre’s canon exerts an alluring pull. You feel it in the apparently living schedules of Sydney’s main stages, as they cycle through Beckett, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov. The wealth of human experience broadly, adequately, apparently, surmised by five dead white men. We use the done-to-death to draw dependable crowds; crowds that might then subsidise experimentation, or so the thinking goes. Shakespeare always breaks even.
After staging Hamlet in 2014, when SUDS elected A Midsummer Night’s Dream as its major production for 2015, I thought I had failed as a president.
Those who would defend the prolificness of these works play a balancing act between arguments of vague universality (director Bennet Sheldon refers to ‘general relevance’ and ‘human concerns’) and contextual concessions (Sheldon: ‘necessarily dated’, ‘some things lose relevance’). This production must negotiate a particularly precarious high wire, as Helena becomes Helios, and Lysander, still Lysander, but a woman! The queer conceit drags the play, at times kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century. The work is suspicious: it is a modern Shakespeare.
Despite my initial doubt, the result is pretty moving. Demetrius and Helios play out a heartbreaking narrative of internalized homophobia, while Hermia and Lysander give a more public rebuke of the traditional conception of marriage as institution (which is less compelling, to my mind, but probably because I have been spurned by lovers in denial, but don’t have the conviction to wed).
There are no design concessions made to the forest. It is predominantly an exercise in social wilding. Sheldon hopes to evoke the wood through other senses and if he can make his ideas work, the effect should be very cool.
Viewers build a ring of watchful eyes. By forcing us into an intimate round, we are implicated in the court’s conservatism, and the forest’s. Sheldon makes the point that, far from a reprieve of the court’s toxic hierarchies, the same false notions of power that the lovers think they are fleeing also poison the forest. The thesis of the production is a rejection of any impediment to an individual’s right to govern their gender, their love and their family. While it isn’t fully realised yet, it’s a pretty radical line in a time and place that is still unwilling to grapple with the question of same sex marriage in any particularly meaningful way. It is an especially radical line to conceal in a Shakespeare play.
‘If you stage [openly] queer theatre,’ Sheldon says, ‘your audience will probably be sympathetic.’ Shows like Charlie O’Grady’s Kaleidoscope may be more pointed and original interrogations of similar subjects, but they often go unforgivably unseen. Should we forfeit authenticity in the interest of being heard?
This same, safe allure that sustains low-risk productions in theatre companies enchants actors. Casts of twenty and beyond promise all comers a shot on stage. I think it’s this pull that got Midsummer over the line at the time of its proposal last year. In the same way that directors want to reclaim the big shows, actors want to take the big roles and make them their own.
So it’s unsurprising that Midsummer has plenty of promising performances. Highlights include Mike Cameron’s handsome and good Demetrius. Tess Green is a cool brand of high-chinned, dignified and powerful as both Titania and Hippolyta. If Madeleine Gerard (as Snout) pulls back a little, she will give one of the greatest supporting performances of the year. The mechanicals generally have a brilliant energy that is bizarrely muted by direction, but I’ve heard they were juggling fresh changes on the day of the rehearsal. Chemistry is a little lacking in some of the romantic pairs. The production could do with a bit more sex and warmth, but the run I saw was a fortnight before opening, and, with time, these issues may well resolve them- selves.
The show has been rehearsing for the better part of a year now. Sheldon is forthcoming about how much his opinions of play have changed, and how much more he respects and appreciates the text now. Regardless of his intentions at the outset, Midsummer seems earnest. It is hard not to sympathise with Sheldon’s hope that this piece of queer theatre in Elizabethan clothing might ensnare an otherwise untapped audience, and show them the magic of the woods.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens in the York Theatre at The Seymour Centre on the 30th of July and plays til the 1st of August. Tickets start at $6 and are available here.