Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, the Russians are in town! At last night’s opening of this off-the-wall interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival in London, holding on to your hats became more than just a metaphorical warning.
Arriving in the foyer of Wellington’s St James Theatre, patrons were greeted with a forest of hanging plants, a hint of what was to come on entering the theatre itself. No sooner were you seated than various outsize props began arriving, some handed down from the balcony over the unsuspecting heads of the audience, others, including a Tane Mahuta-sized tree, manhandled along the aisle, until finally, capping it all, a huge water-spurting fountain was carried drunkenly from the back of the theatre, showering the audience, despite, or perhaps because of, the efforts of actors carrying bright silver buckets.
Welcome to the mad world of Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals, as interpreted by Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory (part of the Moscow Theatre School of Dramatic Art) and the actors (I counted 19) who play everything from Shakespeare to doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, the intellectually challenged clown Bottom and various outraged or confused audience members (seated in the boxes, their number swelled by the addition of a few Russian-looking Kiwis).
Krymov’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a riot. The word is apt, despite the tight discipline evident in the handling of the six-metre-high puppets (Pyramus and Thisbe) and the sheer volume of activity on a stage packed with actors, singers, musical instruments, Heath Robinson-like props (including the aforementioned puppets) and one small brown and white terrier who, faced with the pretend lion (about as threatening as a blancmange), began barking hysterically.
In Krymov’s universe, ideas and images drive the action, not words. Yet such is his genius when words do arrive they are either hilarious, as in Bottom’s apologia at the start of “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Tragic Death of Pyramus and Thisbe”, or strangely moving, as when the actor playing Shakespeare recites (badly, but that is part of the charm) “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”.
To describe the many delights this show has to offer would fill a small book. Suffice it to say that what we were witnessing on opening night was a slice of glorious Russian anarchy, standing somewhere on a line between the dangerous experimentalism of Vladimir Mayakovsky and the angry, politically driven allegories of Victor Pelevin.
Krymov seems unafraid of the Big Bad Wolf that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There’s a joke about the script of “Pyramus and Thisbe” being locked up in the Lubyanka; another exposing the ruthlessness of the new breed of oligarchs. (A Russian audience member keeps answering his cell phone: “Too much money,” he hisses, ignoring the protests of his neighbours.)
In the end, with Pyramus and Thisbe dead, and songs of haunting beauty (16th-century madrigals; Russian folk songs; German lieder) echoing in our ears, the chaotic and the controlled, the amateur and the professional, the sublime and the ridiculous stand united, while the audience (the Kiwi one) shouts “Bravo” and claps the gifted Russians on the stage, who, equally enthusiastic, clap back.
By Elspeth Sandys, New Zeland Listener, 28.02.2014