The Playhouse, October 28


The talented Laura Murphy may have backed the wrong horse – or perhaps ass. She’s taken A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reduced the multiple plots to that of the quartet of ill-matched Athenian lovers manipulated by Oberon and Puck, and created a pop musical. Who’s it for? My guess is 12-15-year-olds, and if that’s the case it will work a treat.

Blake Appleqvist and Brittanie Shipway. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Her songs essentially espouse the thoughts of the characters, while the dialogue remains Shakespeare’s. Given that the lyrics are often amusing in a ribald sort of way, the show may grab teens and pre-teens by both ears and, rather than leaving them entangled in verse, alienated by anachronistic vocabulary and confused by convoluted sentence structures, lead them deep into this miraculous play.

Murphy’s intent would seem didactic as well as entertaining, exploring the nature of love (requited and unrequited) and sex (wanted and unwanted), and that most challenging of all demands upon a teenager: patience. If her intended audience is indeed young, then all’s well, and they can roll up in their busloads, snigger at the naughty bits, cheer for their hero of choice, and gyrate in their seats to the music’s bump and grind.

If, however, the intended audience is adult, then Murphy has plucked the wrong plot from the play. Easily the most enchanting and amusing story belongs to Titania and Bottom, but they are nowhere to be seen here, which is a bit like dramatising Pride and Prejudice without Lizzy and Darcy. So we’re left with the more tiresome foursome, whose pouting and spite cries out to be diluted with the other delights.

Thankfully we may still relish Oberon (Stellar Perry) and Puck (Monique Salle). Murphy, director Shaun Rennie and the actors have arrived at characterisations of these two that maintain much of the intended mystery, magic and mischief. As well as having the best roles, Perry and Salle also are the most convincing actors, most commanding stage presences, and have the pick of the voices.

Stellar Perry. Photos: Daniel Boud.

But then Murphy has made it challenging for the singers to win our hearts, because the songs tend to paint them into corners of shrillness, where what passes for emoting is having a good old shriek. The compositions fall into predicable orbits harmonically, melodically, rhythmically, texturally, structurally and dynamically, and perhaps Murphy might have been better advised to bring a professional orchestrator in to enliven the arrangements for keyboards (music director Andrew Worboys), guitar (Rex Goh), bass (Konrad Ball) and drums (Cypress Bartlett). This may have introduced a greater variety of colours to a musical palette that is, after all, supposed to be embodying a world in which anything can happen.

Blake Appelqvist (Demetrius), Jerrod Smith (Lysander), Natalie Abbott (Helena) and Brittanie Shipway (Hermia) offer performances that, like the songs, are so consistently overwrought that they meld into a shade of beige, and we eagerly await the next scene with Oberon and Puck. More striking is Trent Suidgeest’s lighting and Marg Horwell’s set, the latter nodding to Peter Brook’s unforgettable RSC production of Dream in its use of swings. Between them the designers also create a thrillingly evocative exposition of dawn after the long and wearying night.

Ultimately we must applaud Murphy’s love of the play and playwright, Rennie’s energetic realisation of her vision and Bell Shakespeare for taking a punt on something rather more radical than merely playing the Bard in jeans. I just hope the busloads of teens arrive before the sun comes up at the end of the season.

Until November 20.