November 10, 2015

Giggles and japes in a Dream of a show

The Popular Mechanicals
by Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare and Tony Taylor.
From the original direction by Geoffrey Rush.
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
November 10. Tickets: $ 27 – $ 69.
Bookings : BASS 131246 or
Until November 28.
Duration: 90 minutes.

Puck called them “hempen homespuns”, Shakespeare called them Rude Mechanicals : these are the six artisans who perform a daffy royal command performance for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And just as “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” is the intriguingly parodic play-within-the-play in The Dream, written in 1595, so it also provides the host text for Keith Robinson and Tony Taylor’s wittily exuberant spin-off, The Popular Mechanicals, first performed at Belvoir in 1987.

In its newest revival, 28 years on, the State Theatre Company, with director Sarah Giles, delightfully reminds us there is still rich comedy in these earnest thespians as they set about the magically transformative task of putting on a show.

Vibrantly lit by Mark Pennington, the set by Jonathan Oxlade features a raised proscenium stage for the performances and at floor level, chairs, tables, sewing machines, tea urns and dialling telephones for the rehearsals and impromptu business.

Oxlade’s costumes and wigs run a zany gamut from Elizabethan ruffles to peasant outfits and Lord Fauntleroy foppery and David Heinrich’s music mixes 17th century tunes with Spike Jones cacophonies, and a kitchen cupboard Pop Mechanicals impro version of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

In the spirit of the play’s free clowning, Sarah Giles gives the performers opportunity for free-lance funny business but nobody exceeds their remit. The excellent cast is versatile and inventive. Charles Mayer as Bottom is an interestingly restrained version of Shakespeare’s enthusiastic egoist. As Ralph Mowldie, Bottom’s celebrity replacement, Mayer is extravagantly histrionic, with flowing hair and a velvet cloak concealing his stash of Stanley wine casks.

Tim Overton’s Francis Flute makes for a poignant, if puking Thisby, Lori Bell cross-dresses as Tom Snout hilariously improvising as Wall, while Julie Forsyth is characteristically memorable as Robin Starveling. Amber McMahon as Snug extemporises roaringly as the Lion and contributes majorly to the rubber chicken choreography.

Key to the unity of the comedy though, just as in The Dream, is the character of Peter Quince, played with masterful wit and originality by Rory Walker. He not only ably depicts the exasperations of the theatre director, he expertly farts from a step-ladder in the raucous Beryl sketch.

There are Bottom jokes, poo jokes, giggles and japes. The Popular Mechanicals captures the bawdy spirit of the Elizabethan entertainments and skits known as jigs. But in its faithful depiction of the camaraderie between the artisans, the splendid staging of Pyramus and Thisbe, and in highlighting the paradoxical poetry of Bottom’s dream, this durable play (and pleasurable new production) reminds us, that from humble origins, these characters can – to quote Geoffrey Rush’s program note – “accidentally emerge glorious and triumphant.”

Murray Bramwell

“Giggles and japes in a Dream of a show”, The Australian, November 12, 2015, p.17.

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