‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ // Brisbane Arts Theatre

Young love. Mischievous fairies. Ribald jokes. These are the staples we expect from Shakespeare’s classic play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and Brisbane Arts Theatre successfully delivers every single one. While there were some tweaks, this was no bold new imagining, no head-turning modernist spin. However, there is beauty in the classics, the faithful presentation of the work as the Bard intended. The Brisbane Arts Theatre is a company that appreciates tradition, itself an icon of the Brisbane cultural scene for almost 90 years. Shakespeare’s beloved comedy is therefore a fitting goodbye to laughter, tears, and imaginings that the Brisbane Arts Theatre has brought us, as this is the last production to be housed within its historic home on Petrie Terrace. Fear not, however, as while the building will be closing its doors, the company will be keeping its name and continue to delight audiences at other venues.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is made up of many subplots that intertwine and often mirror each other, centred around the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta within ancient Athens. First, the four young Athenians caught up in the desperate throes of young love: Hermia and Lysander love each other, Demetrius loves Hermia, and Helena loves Demetrius. Authoritarian parenting and hopeless meddling leads all four into the moonlit forests to meet their fate. Secondly, a group of mechanicals believe the forest is the most appropriate space to practice the play they are performing for the illustrious wedding, so off they go as well. Finally, the spiteful bickering between Titania the Fairy Queen and Oberon the Fairy King over old dalliances and a new changeling boy has disastrous consequences for all occupants of the forest that night, when mischievous Robin “Puck” Goodfellow is let loose to enact his master’s revenge. Misunderstandings, love spells, and much hilarity ensues to the audience’s loud enjoyment.

Being the first theatre company in Brisbane to operate its own theatre premises, the Brisbane Arts Theatre has beguiled audiences since 1936 with productions full of heart and local talent. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ has been a beloved production since 1944, having been shown seven times and thus being the most performed play of this Company. Directors Nicky Whichelow and Alex Lanham keep this well-trodden play fresh, understanding the beauty and spirit of Shakespeare’s language but also the difficulty some modern audiences may have connecting with such archaic words and phrases. They made the insightful decision to adapt very little of the script, instead allowing the actors to breathe within Shakespeare’s minimal stage directions and so translate the Elizabethan English to the audience through their actions and inflections. Nick Scotney must also be praised for the clever set design that allows for quick set changes and interesting blocking, as well as a costume design that reflects the personalities of the characters. Zoe Power on Sound Design and George Pitt as Lighting Designer and Head of Tech created deceptively simple sound and lighting cues that allowed the audience to quickly understand not just the location of a particular scene, but also the mood of certain characters or the presence of meddlesome magic. At one point during the second half of the play, however, the lighting on the audience was startlingly bright and distracted from the events on stage.

While the wit of the play is found within Shakespeare’s clever phrasings and double entendres, the true hilarity and roaring audience laughter was brought forth by the physical comedy of the actors. Tilly Wood as Puck, Peter Muir as Bottom, and Troy Cations as Lysander were a marvel to behold as they turned even the slightest movement into belly-aching comedy. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to hear the Bard’s words over the deafening enthusiasm of the audience as they eagerly watched each scene unfold. Kailan Tyler-Moss was unsettling in her commitment to her role as Helena, portraying the crazed devotion of the character with frightening believability. So strong was her performance that she made it difficult for the audience to cheer for her character’s success, which highlights some of the more problematic aspects of Shakespeare’s “happy” ending.

The breakout performance was given by Tilly Wood, who stole the show each time she was on stage. Her comedic timing was exceptional, leaving no opportunity wasted, as she breathed exciting life into the role of Puck. Every time she turned her twinkling eye to the audience, inviting them to join in on her impish fun, they held their breath and waited. They were never disappointed.

Madeleine Harper as the much-desired Hermia was a lesson in the power of vocal presence and timing, as while her physical comedy was enjoyable she truly shone through her lines and facial expressions. Cheney Hossack, who played Titania, was unfortunately unable to demonstrate this as while she was able to present the gravitas of a Fairy Queen, her frequent need for line prompts during the first half of the play distracted from her performance. This improved during the second half, though the same couldn’t be said for Ewan Orton, who played Theseus. Orton was difficult to understand throughout the whole play, as he spoke quickly and quietly. As his role relied far less on movement to convey meaning, the audience had to rely on the words and actions of the other cast in order to glean understanding.

The highlight of the show was the play-within-a-play of the finale, which offered hilarity for the audience to enjoy anywhere they looked. There was seldom a dry eye or quiet voice in the audience during this comedy of errors, as joke after joke was caught and appreciated by all. The laughter was so infectious that even the cast was swept up in it, at times having to pause in their delivery, lips pressed tightly against inopportune snickering.

It was a night to be remembered, a performance not quickly forgotten, and a fitting farewell to a beloved theatre. It doesn’t matter if you are new to the Brisbane arts scene, or a long-time resident, the Brisbane Arts Theatre’s performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ should not be missed. Not only will you leave the theatre wiping away tears of mirth, you will also have been a part of history as you bear witness to the final performance of a beloved theatre steeped in the memories and dreams of those who have passed through its doors.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ performs until Saturday, 1 June 2024 at the Brisbane Arts Theatre. For more information visit their website.

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