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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review: Style defeats Substance. A Midsummer Night's Dream opens at Stratford

A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Designed by Julie Fox

Chick Reid as Puck. Photo: Michael Cooper
The character Helena sums up  Chris Abraham's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream best...
             "Oh weary night, oh long and tedious night."

Let us go back to the play's beginning. A Midsummer Night's Dream is dated about 1595 or 6, and is set leading up to May Day, a traditional wedding day of the time. There is no record of it being performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, but given the framing device of a wedding between a Duke and a Queen, it is thought to have been commissioned for an important wedding celebration, and probably performed at court.*
Given this information, it appears Chris Abraham decided it would be fun to recreate the play's origins. It starts promisingly enough... the set is a summer's evening in a gorgeously lush backyard, twinkle-lights and flameless candles softly lighting the trees and pond. The actors mill and mingle about, interacting with the audience and acting as wedding guests, until the happy couple - two men - are led in and surprised by their friends. The gift - an impromptu performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. One of the lover-couples will be a pair of women, and for anyone knowing this play of transformative love, this is a lovely, contemporary interpretation for a millenial audience.

In one respect, it is very sweet for guests at a wedding to be willing to appear foolish for their friends by putting on an amateur show. But it descends so very quickly into a series of predictable cheap laughs, cut text, and cringe-worthy performances that it is insulting to both audience and some very fine actors made to appear simply ridiculous.  And the audience  is not actually at a wedding, and they have not paid money to see an amateur show.

The text was not just cut, it was mashed and hashed and reworked to fit the director's choices. Sure, Shakespeare himself was no shrinking violet when it came to working language to suit him - scholars still argue whether he is responsible for 400 or 1500 new words and phrases added to the English language. But Chris Abraham is no Shakespeare. His director's notes in the house program actually contradicts those of the Shakespeare scholar who contributed the program notes, which indicates not only does he not respect the text, he cares little about the audience too.

Why else would he cut acres of text to be delivered by the likes of Stephen Ouimette as Bottom? Dream has some of the finest poetry in the entire Bardic canon, and such lines were sacrificed so that a food-fight, wet-t-shirt contest and cheesy 80's ballads could be inserted while a group of diminutive fairies sings Bruno Mars.

Yes, the children were adorable fairies. But every cute fairy, each allusion to Blackberrys or light sabres, all the inserted contemporary slang ("like, waaaay too much") is all very affecting - as in, it takes the audience right out of the play and we have to fight our way back in again. Student audiences are going to love it, no doubt about it, but it is the worst kind of self-indulgent staging.

Evan Buliung as Titania, Jonathan Goad as Oberon.
Photo: Michael Cooper
Now. Close your eyes to listen to Jonathan Goad's Oberon and in the more quiet moments you will hear something akin to true magic (sometimes Evan Buliung will be playing the role instead). Squint your eyes and try to see the impishly delightful Chick Reid as a Puck in a setting more suited to her talent. Block out the nonsense and focus on Scott Wentworth's worth as a truly noble Theseus. Watch Tara Rosling's impassioned Lysander in the first act and let that memory carry you through the remainder of the evening. And yes, lament for the lost opportunity to see Stephen Ouimette shine as Nick Bottom, and try to forget how utterly misused are Barbara Fulton and Brad Hodder. Forget, but don't forgive it.

A Midsummer Night's Dream continues in repertory until October 11 at the Festival Theatre.

Cast members of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Photo: Michael Cooper
*Essential Shakespeare Handbook 1st American Edition. Dunton-Downer, Leslie, et al. DK Publishing, New York, NY, 2004


  1. Disgusting! A modernized version pushing a gay social agenda and, totally amateur and un-professionally done, to add. The cast was toting beer, slipping into the pond, messing up their lines. The cast was obviously having a "ball" reliving some sort of high school era, let's be young again, sloppy kind of half Shakespeare half, God knows what kind of "production" Worst of all, there was NO WARNING in the play description that this was going to be a modernized, butcher'ized version of Shakespears classic that we paid hundreds of dollars to see. We really wanted to walk out at intermission. Luckily, and to the credit of the theater, we got vouchers for another play.

  2. In no way should you take my review to mean that I don't support gay marriage - I most certainly do. That the director was trying to show inclusiveness is to be commended, I simply believe he went too broad and ignored some of the best nuances of the play. I would thank-you not to use this space to push your own anti-gay agenda - or if you do, at least have the courage to add your name to the courage of your convictions.


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