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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: Peter Sellars' Chamber Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play
by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Peter Sellars
Featuring Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom and Mike Nadajewski

From left to right: Sarah Afful, Mike Nadajewski, Trish Lindstrom
and Dion Johnstone. Photo by Michael Cooper
Reviewers whose homes are blogs of their own design and making were not granted media tickets for the opening of Peter Seller's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, so I am under no obligation to review it, even after snaffling a freebie ticket on for a performance this past weekend.

And yet...

Something compels a response. Not because the Chamber Dream was so profoundly moving that it shakes one to the core, in fact, just the opposite. It is hard to feel anything for this production.

Ok, that is not quite true, at first one feels respect for the hard work that went into crafting this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. But that is quickly replaced by boredom. Then frustration, and finally sheer aggravation at being trapped in an audience given no graceful avenue of escape.

The point of the piece and the director's intentions are clear in the program's notes: to get at the heart of the play by condensing the text and having a mere four actors quadruple up on the roles, their lines delivered by whispers or shouts with mic'd voices - to reveal layers in the text not normally heard and seen. Relationships overlap, intentions are muddied, a throwaway laugh becomes sexy, a vicious invective feels like silk.

But why is anyone who frequents theatre at all surprised by this? Corporate consultants are paid ridiculous amounts of money each year to tell businessmen a simple fact that every actor inherently knows - that 70% of all communication is non-verbal. Tone and pitch of voice, inflection, emphasis, body language - each one of these things factors into the meaning of any line or sentence when spoken aloud, and in theatre it goes miles in creating subtext .

So about twenty minutes into the performance when it became obvious this Dream is a master-class in non-verbal communication, it becomes boring. The actors explore the plays' relationships by changing the natures of the characters; the audience ceases to care. It would have been more interesting to read this version of the play, not witness its desiccation.  I do not use that word lightly - for all of Mr. Sellars' enlightened intentions to get at the heart of the play, he only reveals - relentlessly so - the dark, lustful, anguished side of the play's core emotion, love. There is no gentleness, no humour, no forgiveness... even at plays' end the characters do not seem convinced that the worst has passed and there is happiness to come.

Were the performances brave and powerful? Yes, if you like your points made with a jackhammer over an hour and forty-five minutes with no interruption. Was it an audacious production? Yes, it is lovely to see the Stratford Festival taking such risks - and  for the sake of their financial health it is good they did not try it in a bigger venue.

But  theatre should not just be about presenting a play in a "clever" new way, it should also be about connecting with the audience, and this the Chamber Dream fails to do on any emotional level.

Well, except for making some of us so irritated it was hard not to scream at the characters "SNAP OUT OF IT!" so we could all go home.

So, if you go see the Chamber Dream, here are three pieces of advice:
  1) Carefully read the other reviews over there to the right  - Lynn Slotkin's and Kelly Nestruck's are particularly helpful.
  2) Be as familiar with the plot and as many of the characters of the original so it is easier to follow as the actors switch roles (Sarah Afful plays Helena, Hippolyta, Flute and Puck; Dion Johnstone plays Theseus, Demetrius, and Bottom; Trish Lindstrom plays Hermia, Lion, Wall and Titania; Mike Nadajewski plays Oberon, Lysander, and Peter Quince).
  3) Get a seat in the rows E, G, J or L for the best shot at an unobstructed view. It is a very small stage.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play continues in repertory until September 20th at the Masonic Concert Hall.

1 comment:

  1. katie diotallevi2 August 2014 at 21:00

    Robyn - although I do agree with some of your points I feel you missed a very important part of the concept: this is a dream. The players are characters in the dream which is why there is such extremes of emotion and such confusion as they shift from one character to another. The background sounds (which you didn't mention) sound vaguely seashore-like with a rhythmic whooshing. These sounds get much louder whenever the charcters get really revved up. That is the sound of the heart with blood pulsing through its chambers. When emotions get heated, the blood pressure increases and the lighting supports this by turning blood red during those moments. The small room in which the quartet are trapped could be interpreted as the brain - the greyish swirls on the back wall look like the neural matter of the brain. The art installation in the theatre could be seen as the detritus of the brain - things seen, experienced and stored for future reference, We are inside someone's dream on a midsummer's night. For good or ill, we have to see it through to the end when we awake and try to make sense of the 'crazy dream' we've just had. Although I agree the show was a bit long, I found this concept quite exciting and I was moved by the intensity of the actors' commitment to their roles.


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