It may seem an odd combination reviewing these together but as they are playing in rep by the same company currently out at Bella Vista Farm and soon on to The Leura Everglades, let’s knock them over and tell you all the reasons why seeing them both is a good idea.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a Shakespeare classic and let’s face it, it’s probably the most performed play in the canon of Shakespeare’s works and is so well known it can feel like it’s churned out a little too often because it is a crowd pleaser. It’s for that reason, the familiarity we all have with this play, I know I can confidently take the whole family to watch it and they’ll thoroughly enjoy it. It has something for everyone (and as a side note, eight year old Emily hasn’t stopped talking about it since we saw it almost a week ago and her Christmas gift bounty was heavily influenced by her new love of Shakespeare, Titania and Bottom). Smart move parents- get your kids into theatre and Shakespeare and you’re already off to becoming Parent of the Year in my book. But because of its frequency in staging, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' can make me feel like I'm going to see the same old interpretation all over again, like a living experience of Groundhog Day. However, this version has some sparks of originality whilst still paying homage to previous successful productions of Shakespeare's play.
Susanna Dowling has directed ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ this time round for Sport for Jove. There is a heavy contrast evident with her vision of this military, regimented world of duty, service and even love is won through force compared to the frenzied punk and party influence of the forest, fairies portraying that youth culture of excess after dark, away from the prying eyes of their parents, in this case Titania and Oberon. Sometimes the military aspects, particularly in the opening scenes, felt a bit heavy handed but once we moved, literally, to the forest, the play comes alive and the possibilities, confusion and chaos unravels and we like it a whole lot more. I particularly enjoyed the use of the showman in Puck (Felix Jozeps) and the audience interaction of the fairies as well as the karaoke segments with Bottom (Jonathan Mill) and Titania (Francesca Savige) and the dynamic between Puck and Oberon (Christopher Tomkinson) was well executed.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ makes great use of its environment and although it can feel slightly contrived at times, there’s nothing there that will make you regret taking the trek out to the hills or mountains to catch this classic. And be prepared to get into the groove and pull out a few dance moves of your own. You might welcome it if you eat as much cheese at the picnic as I do…
‘The Crucible’, Arthur Miller’s play on the Salem witch-hunts in response to the anti-communist trials of the House of Un-American Activities in the 1950’s, is given a new life under the company’s artistic director Damien Ryan. Ryan has to be one of Australia’s best directors currently working on the scene, as evidenced most recently in his production of ‘Henry V’ for Bell Shakespeare. What Ryan knows how to do is share the vision with the rest of his team. It’s like every creative at work on the play becomes a co-director- Scott Witt with his movement and fight choreography, Anna Gardiner’s design, David Stalley’s sound design, Sian James-Holland’s lighting- Ryan knows how to get all the stakeholders to contribute to creating a full picture of the play and then impressively expressed through his actors as a final brushstroke in the narrative’s painting.
The old shed of Bella Vista Farm is the perfect setting for ‘The Crucible’. Rustic and natural enough to feel apt for the pilgrim tale, the intimacy is heightened and tension is inescapable. We are in a space where the hundreds of burning candles not only create this old world atmosphere and location but they symbolize the short life of this burning courtroom and the Christian pretense of godly sacrifice when the potential of power abounds.
But even before the show starts, we are herded through the homestead to see rooms filled with the characters in role and in action; the stony faced Putnams (Jonathan Mill and Wendy Strehlow), Giles Corey (John Keightley), Rebecca and Francis Nurse (Annie Byron and Alan Faulkner), Elizabeth Proctor (Georgia Adamson) and Reverend Parris (Matt Edgerton) sermonizing in a way that makes us very much aware of why John Proctor (Julian Garner) would rather plough the fields on a Sunday than go to church. We see the girls dancing in the woods, abandoning all pretense of childhood compliance, their subsequent shock of discovery and then we return to our makeshift theatre to begin the play with Betty Parris (Emma Chelsey) virtually comatose on her bed, fussed over by Tituba (Suzanne Pereira), Abigail (Lizzie Schebesta) and Reverend Parris (Edgerton), filling the space with panic and fear.
Every subtlety is within our grasp in Ryan’s production because it’s happening only a few feet away but no matter where you’re sitting, what you can’t miss is the superb acting of Garner as Proctor, closely followed by Anthony Gooley as Reverend Hale, Philip Dodd’s Judge Danforth, Schebesta’s Abigail, Adamson’s Elizabeth and Matilda Ridgway’s Mary Warren. The whole cast deliver and it feels almost unfair to not mention everybody who appears on stage- there are no weak links- but Garner in particular demonstrates such passion and range that even though I can eyeball the other side of the audience on the opposite side of the stage, we are totally engaged in the action of the play and convinced by the belief of the characters throughout.
So before you head off to all the Sydney Festival choices on offer, avail yourself of this summer of Sport for Jove. No-one quite knows how to master outdoor theatre like they do and to make you look in a new way how to interpret old works to feel as audience we are as much a part of the show as the actors.