Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) is a joyous celebration of storytelling, but the play has a dark subtext that winds through it, writes Alison Croggon.
Theatre, like love, is a provisional art. No matter how rehearsed, anything might go wrong at any moment: the beloved might reject us, the scenery might fall down, a performer might forget her lines or trip over the props. The trick is to appear purposeful: the innocent spectator, not knowing how things are meant to be, will be seeing it for the first time. Who knows? That pratfall might well have been on purpose.
Dmitry Krymov is clearly fascinated by this quality. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), commissioned from the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the London Cultural Olympiad, exposes the vulgar illusions of theatre and opens them up into a joyous celebration of storytelling. Krymov has created a reputation as one of Russia’s most exciting directors for his “dynamic montage”, works assembled and unmade before the eyes of the audience, which are created in close collaboration with designers; in this case, Vera Martynova.
The show begins with a hubbub at the edges of the auditorium: with the maximum possible fuss, the company brings in huge artificial trees and a water-spouting fountain over the heads of the audience. These, the conventional decorations for the magical forest outside Athens, or maybe Arden (who knows?) are huffed and puffed onto a stage still covered with sawdust, hauled laboriously backstage, and disappear, never to be seen again. All that’s left is a Jack Russell Terrier looking cute in a pool of light, and a screen of text which tells us how our company of artisans are exploring Shakespeare.
Krymov’s production winds out from a small part of the Dream: the episode where the “rude mechanicals” stage “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” for the Duke and Duchess of Athens. Here the spectators, augmented by an outspoken onstage audience of performers and singers decked out in furs and mobile phones, take the place of the aristocrats. The class dynamic here, of the artisans and their bourgeois patrons, is both clear and lightly done. It’s a beautiful conceit that permits the company to do pretty much whatever it likes, and so it does: the narrative is a slender thread that barely holds together the clowning, acrobatics and operatic masque that unfolds before (and sometimes around) us.
Our heroic narrator, who is already covered in blood after falling on his nose in the opening scene, tells us that the company has inspected the KGB files in Lubianka (which presumably hold a complete volume of Ovid) and are positive that they have discovered the original tale, as retold by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pyramus and Thisbe, he says, are the blueprint for all stories of star-crossed love, from Romeo and Juliet to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They are all destroyed by he calls “The Thing”: the ban that makes their love impossible. Light though the whole play is, a darker subtext winds through it: among the lovers mentioned are the actor Zinaida Reich and the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, both murdered by Stalin’s KGB. But, the narrator hurriedly tells us, they have signed confidentiality clauses and can reveal no more about that…
Pyramus and Thisbe are represented by a gigantic puppets cobbled out of a miscellany of objects and operated by the performers. Pyramus’s face appears to be an icon-like portrait of a young man, perhaps one of the Fayum mummyportraits painted 2000 years ago in Egypt; Thisbe is some kind of grotesque porcelain doll. As with the makeshift ethos of everything else in this production, the puppets threaten to fall apart at any moment. Their tragic story unfolds among a lot of business: ingenious acrobatics, interruptions from the onstage audience, who take phone calls or keep up a running commentary. There is almost a riot after the wedding night, when Pyramus’s codpiece is unscrewed and a gigantic phallus falls out, which is dutifully inflated with a bicycle pump.
Songs from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, another story of love and death, illustrate the story, and the music brings an unexpected and almost incongruous beauty to the playfulness. But this pays off when Pyramus, convinced his lover has been eaten by a lion (the lion suit, with some bat wings, was actually rather good), stabs himself with his sword. As with the original mechanicals, suddenly this misshapen and crude artifice generates a real and moving grandeur.
But of course, this moment too disintegrates. An audience member onstage tells us a grotesque story about a pet lion that becomes a darkly absurd fable about Russian bureaucracy. Some very young ballet students trip onto the stage to perform the Danse des petits cygnes from Swan Lake, as one of the actors gets out a broom to clean up the set. As with life, you are never quite sure when the story ends.
by Alison Croggon, ABC Arts, 20.02.2014