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THEATRE: 21 SEPTEMBER 2016

By TONI CARROLL

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Kip Williams

Sydney Theatre Company (https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au) | Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House | Until 22 October

FYI, I adore A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some have said my passion for it borders on obsession.

I’ve seen it in the Botanical Gardens under the stars while drinking sparkling wine. I’ve seen it at the Globe Theatre in London while chomping on a turkey leg. I’ve seen umpteen productions in theatres of all shapes and sizes, from Belvior’s Downstairs Theatre to the now defunct Theatre Nepean’s original tractor shed.

I’ve worked behind the scenes as costume designer when the fairies were wood nymphs and Puck was a punk, and onstage as Titania, Queen of the Fairies.

But I have never seen a version quite like this.

To steal a line from Star Trek, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jim, but not as we know it.

Think Shakespeare meets Rocky Horror Picture Show. Think Play School meets True Blood.

Of all the themes in the play — such as love vs marriage, reality vs magic and mask, natural order vs disorder, transformation — director Kip Williams has plucked out sexual awakening and gone hard with it. Brad and Janet’s loss of innocence at the hands of Frank N Furter is nothing compared to this. Williams has given the play the darkest of readings and, while maintaining the comedy of the text, offset it by the destruction of both our innocence and that of the characters.

Shakespeare’s forest is the setting for kids and nature gone wild, and traditional productions often choose to portray it as such. For Williams and set designer Robert Cousins, however, the young Athenians’ flight into the woods is not a flight to nature in terms of landscape, but in terms of the abstract nature of the mind where sexual darkness resides. It is a totally bare set where anything can happen, rather than a representation of the natural world.

Within this setting, Williams has chosen to make manifest the carnality of the play that is merely toyed with metaphorically in traditional productions. He writes that “our fairy world is one where interior life is made exterior … It is a psychological landscape where every being drips with sexuality.”

It’s here, in the dream state, where the young lovers explore their burgeoning sexuality, where the King and Queen of the Fairies play their horrid games.

Titania and Oberon’s relationship mirrors that of their Athenian counterparts, Hippolyta and Theseus, which is based on gendered dominance, control and possessiveness. The world of Athens is one of patriarchy and repression. We’ve always known this is a part of our beloved A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but have never seen it so starkly teased out and laid in front of us as we do here.

No wonder the young lovers are so screwed up.

By the end, the stage is awash with enough blood to rival any Shakespearean tragedy. But it’s not the blood of death, per se, it’s the symbolic blood of fertility and transformation.

Orgasmic transformations, briefly simulated sex, red pulsing lights, fishnet stockings and lustful writhing may be a bit much for Shakespearean traditionalists, particularly those who hold A Midsummer Nights’ Dream close to their childhood hearts. But for me this production is invigorating and exhilarating, and all future productions will pale by comparison.