The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 6


The rude mechanicals’ play-within-play, Pyramus and Thisbe, can sometimes seem a lame coda to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not here. Peter Evans’ Bell Shakespeare production ensures it crowns all the comedy that’s gone before. Even Quince’s prologue, so often laboured, skips from the tongue of Imogen Sage on a barrage of laughs; laughs that rise to fever-pitch as firstly Matu Ngaropo’s Pyramus and then Richard Pyros’ Thisbe engineer their suicides with an absurdly long sword.

Earlier, when the mechanicals rehearse, Evans has Nganropo’s Bottom manipulating Ahunim Abebe’s Snug like a floppy puppet in teaching her how to play the lion, and it’s we who do the roaring. Such visual, rich and earthy comedy works a treat, whereas many lighter sources go astray. In fact a lack of lightness is the abiding flaw, with much shouted anger that could be hissed instead.

Imogen Sage and Richard Pyros. Top: Sage, Pyros and Matu Ngaropo. Photos: Brett Boardman.

This also undermines the supreme lyricism of the verse, Dream joining Romeo and Juliet and Richard II in a hat-trick of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays. It’s verse that clouds the air with magic, more than any costume, prop or set. The verse dances and the rhymes sing – when allowed: there being less lightness here, there’s less magic, too.

Evans’ intent was otherwise, for he starts not with the sombre scene at Theseus’ court, but with Quince dispensing roles to Bottom and the rest. It’s a cute idea: Pyramus and Thisbe now tops and tails the play, postponing our encounter with the glowering, murderous Egeus (also Ngaropo). All the actors have a busy time: seven cover over 20 roles, with only Puck left to stand alone.

Ella Prince’s Puck is no flighty sprite: instead a stern and solemn executor of Oberon’s every whim, and sharing platinum hair and black attire, the two appear cast from the same mould. Pyros seems at first an overly hysterical Oberon, but this is to find a voice that differentiates him from his Theseus. Once you adjust to his maniacal expression of caprice, he flourishes, casting spells with the rapture of the “little western flower,/Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound” and “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows” speeches. These are rightly like moments when a violin soars above an orchestra in a concerto.

Prior to that, the first bickering exchanges between Oberon and Titania give no clue as to just how good Imogen Sage will be as the latter when she lights the stage with her lust for Bottom bedecked in his ass’s ears, or personifies Titania’s unique blend of regality and weightlessness.

Ella Prince, Sage and Pyros. Photos: Brett Boardman

Any humour from the beleaguered mortal lovers – Abebe’s Hermia, Isabel Burton’s Helena, Laurence Young’s Lysander and Mike Howlett’s Demetrius – is left largely unmilked because they are made to be constantly angsty, unappealing people. Yes, they are a riddle to perform, but at the very least we should sympathise more with Helena’s lovelorn plight.

As good as Ngaropo is as Egeus and hilarious as Pyramus, he just misses something of the quality that should make us all love Bottom so: his equanimity – even when he finds himself half-ass.

Designer Teresa Negroponte takes the many references to “the wood” (as in “forest”) literally, and gives us the wall of a dilapidated barn for a set; one filled with cunning holes to come and go, and beams about which Puck, Oberon and Titania might leap and fly. And all the while Max Lyandvert’s music chimes and tinkles as if driven by the wind rather than mere mortal intervention.

Until March 30.