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Topsy-turvy world is hit and miss

Review: Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream ·
The Edith Spiegeltent, October 13 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

I fear I am turning into my mother.

This is what ran through my mind during this carnivalesque reconstruction of one of Shakespeare’s rom-coms, performed in the stunning Edith Spiegeltent by WAAPA’s graduating acting students, under the direction of Stefanos Rassios.

You see, in 1990, as a 17-year-old, I took my mum to see a play called Entropy Concerto at Murdoch University. It was directed by Serge Tampalini and I immediately fell in love with experimental theatre. My mother, on the other hand, loathed the production and told Tampalini so on the way out. I am still recovering from the embarrassment.

Rassios is NIDA trained, highly experienced and experimental, and much revered. He is exactly the type of director whose artistic vision I admire and whose productions I usually savour. So how did I come to jot lines such as “so confused and bored” in my notepad? Either something didn’t quite work… or I am just turning into my mother. Perhaps a bit of both?

In his program notes (which, admittedly, I didn’t read until after the play) Rassios writes that while versions of Love generally end in Tragedy or Comedy, he was hoping to unearth ingredients such as “terror, awkwardness, pain, apathy, loneliness, confusion, and hopelessness” in this production. He certainly delivered on that front.

He goes on: “It doesn’t sound much fun, but when viewed through the prism of Theatre, we can at least appreciate the lighting? Can’t we?” I guess. And in fact, the highlight for me was Bottom (the comical and captivating James Thomasson) dancing under strobe lighting (ass’s head and all), while Puck lip synchs on a stage (in a see-though blouse and black stilettos. And forget winged fairies with garlands of flowers. These fairies look like vampire-bitten goths, at a B&D club.)

An uncomfortable moment that doubles as thrilling spectacle. Photo: © Jon Green.

Rassios continues: “It is this trauma to the subconscious and our ability to endure it that is central to this reconstruction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Sometimes those uncomfortable moments double as thrilling spectacle, such as when Oberon (Michael Cameron) shoots Puck in the mouth from a plastic squirty bottle. It goes on and on, the liquid cascading down his mouth and onto the floor until he finally collapses. Other moments, like those involving gaffa tape and a feather, to a “Jolene” soundtrack, just made me feel a bit sick.

Midsummer represents a topsy-turvy world, a sort of bacchanalian reprieve from the usual codes of morality. The play certainly lends itself to an exploration of gender and sexuality. Some of this production’s explorations make sense; some are less apparent (hence my note: “Why is Lysander wearing a skirt?”)

The Spiegeltent – with its association of burlesque and cabaret – is the ideal space for this take on the play, characterised by chaos, humour and a blending of high and popular culture. The reflection of performers in the space’s dozens of mirrors is a visual delight.

For me, it was also quite a relief after a frustrating lack of visibility in the first part of the play. During the prologue, the audience is placed, standing, in the Spiegeltent’s equivalent of the foyer. I literally saw nothing. Once the punters are seated, the centre of the space is enclosed in a square of semi-opaque plastic. It feels a bit like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

The inventive of use of the plastic, once it comes down, is interesting, though. Another highlight? Kian Pitman’s portrayal of Helena, from bolshie to melancholic. The closing scene, in which she plays the violin, sobbing, was poignant. After all the high-camp and farce, she seemed to hold up a mirror to the realities of love. Sigh.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays The Edith Spiegeltent at WAAPA, until October 18.

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