REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream In New Orleans, Above The Arts ✭✭✭

A Midsummer Night's Dream in New Orleans
E J Martins (helena), Ruari Cannon (Demetrius) and Lawrence O’Connor (Quince). Photo: Annabelle Narey.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Orleans
Above The Arts Theatre
3 Stars

Shakespeare’s early masterpiece sets a high bar for any director coming to it afresh. At this time of year you can find many a country house garden or park that offers a home to an open-air production where the main work of magic is done by the setting; and that performance tradition of course has its place. However, after Peter Brook’s famous ‘white box’ production for the RSC in 1970, any professional director is more or less duty bound to find a new concept that eschews naturalism in favour of symbolism or at least alternative period genre.

In this new production at Above the Arts, director Linnie Reedman and Ruby in the Dust Productions, relocate the action to the steamy clubs and bayous of New Orleans making full use of the rich jazz and blues tradition of that city, and in particular the songs of Dr. John. Athens becomes Athens, Georgia so that an element of racial politics enters the scenario too. We are taken into the world of voodoo rather than simple ‘magic’, with the performers doubling as singers and instrumentalists. This works very well on the whole though the venue is hardly ideal for such a production where so many genres of music, theatre and dance have to rub up against each other in a very confined space.

A Midsummer Night's Dream in New Orleans
Silvana Maimone (Titania), Matt Jopling (Flute), Sarah Ratheram (Starveling). Photo: Annabelle Narey

The stage is arranged in traverse: at one end a curtained bed which serves as Titania’s bower, at the centre a tree with a scatter of cushions to act as the forest, and at the far end a piano which is the focal point of many of the musical numbers. Almost all the cast sing and dance and for the greater part the ‘rude mechanicals’ double as the instrumentalists as well. We begin with an atmospheric rendition of ‘Marie Laveau’ as Titania (Silvana Maimone) sets a voodoo spell, and then the play in earnest starts with inter-racial conflict as Egeus (Matthew Woodyatt) tries to prevent Hermia’s marriage to Lysander (Jonathan Ajayi).

These themes predominate in the next two and a half hours. The magic of the voodoo world is both alluring and threatening, by no means benign; the music captures the sultry intoxication and temptation and potential for conflict of a night in the Big Easy, and the city of Athens becomes the locus of social and racial inequality to which the marshes and forests are both refuge and the source of a solution. All in all this is a well thought through conceptual relocation of the play and it is applied consistently through the action. It does not peter out at a later stage, which is so often irritatingly the case in re-workings of Shakespeare that flip back into naturalism as if the new thinking has been a ruse all along. I was also impressed at the way the director used the mechanicals to double as fairies during the reverie of Bottom and Titania, though most of the other fairy frolics have been excised by dramaturg, Henriette Rietveld, and this certainly produces a darker tone overall, in the forest as much as back in Athens. The cast often reprises Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, but the troubles never entirely dissipate.

However there are problems of execution, if not of imagination. The venue itself is much better suited to small-scale intimate theatre than to a largish company in full cry. The location near Leicester Square is naturally noisy even with the windows closed and there was a sense of physical limitation to the performances that reduced their impact. For this play to work it does not need a whole forest in which to breathe but it does a larger studio space, especially if you are going to stage it in traverse or in the round. As things stood the quarrelling couples and mechanicals in rehearsal required more elbow room and the necessity for characters to rush in and out of nearby doors summoned the spirit of farce at points rather than fairy or voodoo revels.

A Midsummer Night's Dream in New Orleans
Jonathan Ajayi as Lysander. Photo: Annabelle Narey

More seriously there were several points at which the delivery of the verse fell below an acceptable standard. I can readily concede that in an adaptation of this type singing and dancing ability are as important as technical handling of verse, but they are no substitute. In the first half above all the delivery of some of the longer speeches was inaudible or thrown away and major points of plot and characterization muffled as a result. The second half was much better projected by all concerned, but by that stage the focus has switched to action and plot resolution, so there are fewer set-piece sections of poetry to deliver. The language of the play’s poetry is so superabundantly rich in metaphor and scene-painting – like a shimmering shoal of fish that suddenly and repeatedly swims into a bay. So this was a real missed opportunity.

A Midsummer Night's Dream in New Orleans
Sid Phoenix as Puck. Photo: Annabelle Narey

Broadly speaking the lovers were well matched, feisty and carefully distinguished from one another. With the exception of Ajayi’s Lysander, who is played as a black musician, the other three are plantation aristocrats. The women are particularly engaging when they begin to fall out over ‘acorns’ and ‘maypoles’. Among other individual performances there were two that really stood out as fully formed and distinctive realisations. Matthew Woodyatt is an excellent singer, actor and trumpeter and thus has all the skills needed to play Bottom the Weaver as a larger than life bumptious wannabe thespian with comic flair. His scenes with Maimone’s Titania are less convincing, but that owes more to the fact that both she and David Monteith‘s Oberon are more regal and authoritative in their singing than in their acting. The play-within-a-play overstayed its welcome, but then that is so in most productions of the Dream.

While the other mechanicals all take their moments well and play their instruments with sufficient skill, the figure that best epitomizes the spirit and ambition of this production is Puck, played by Sid Phoenix. Made up to look like Heath Ledger’s Joker and sporting a top hat and waistcoat, he has mystery and choreographic grace and playful wit in abundance together with a fine baritone, and a natural grip on the text projected though one of the most secure and convincing of the Southern accents in the production. He is certainly a talent to look out for in the future.

If this performance did not clear all of the hurdles set by Shakespeare and the play’s daunting production history, it cannot be faulted on ambition and daring. The company has fully earned the right to be heard and seen again in this concept of the play and one hopes that it will be soon and in a larger, more suitable venue.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream In New Orleans runs at Above The Arts until 29th August 2015

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