Theatre review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dublin Castle Summer Seasons, Dublin, 23 July, 2014

In Dublin theatre company Mouth On Fire’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of The Bard’s most popular works is given a glam rock twist. It works, writes Philip Cummins

Left to Right: Fionn Foley (Puck) and Colm O'Brien (Demetrius)

Left to Right: Fionn Foley (Puck) and Colm O’Brien (Demetrius)

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland. To read the original, please click here.

IN THE 450 YEARS since William Shakespeare’s birthday, it’s only really in the last 100 years that practitioner have  fused Shakespeare’s work with the contemporary culture of the day to give added context to the longevity of the themes and concerns of The Bard’s best work. The most popular example is, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version of Romeo & Juliet, though this reviewer has seen a version of Macbeth featuring a cast clad in military uniforms and firing AK- 47’s rather than wielding swords, as well as a version of Hamlet far removed from 16th century Denmark and, instead, set in 1950’s American suburbia.

It’s no surprise, then, that Irish theatre company Mouth On Fire have sound-tracked one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, a comedy featuring five interconnecting stories of love, decadence and identity, and fused Shakespeare’s work with the soundtrack of 1970’s glam rock; a genre of rock music characteristic of many of the play’s themes and, indeed, characters.

Dublin Castle’s Castle Gardens is an excellent space for the performance. On unusually balmy summer night in Dublin, the play’s surroundings are nothing short of majestic. Of course, the play’s surroundings also contrast starkly with the costumes and props of the cast, of which much emphasis is given: the costume designer seems to have raided Freddie Mercury’s wardrobe for leotards for the character of Lysander; Hermia is a 70’s era San Francisco folkie; Demetrius, the man whose feelings Hermia doesn’t return in favor of Lysander, is a 1950’s- era nerd that is the antithesis to Lysander; the chorus of the play is found strumming a Fender Stratocaster rather than a flute.

Left to Right: Colm O'Brien (Demetrius), Melanie Phillips (Helena) and Matthew O'Brien (Lysander)

Left to Right: Colm O’Brien (Demetrius), Melanie Phillips (Helena) and Matthew O’Brien (Lysander)

What makes the costumes work is the knowledge that basing the production on 70’s, glam rock- era costumes is no more and no less nostalgic than dressing the cast in Shakespearean-era clobber, which has its own nostalgia. While it’s true that nostalgia, or ‘Retromania’ as Simon Reynolds terms it, has the power to drown out everything, the production sets out its tone in the opening moments of the act one, scene one: T-Rex’s ‘20th Century Boy’ blares from the PA’s, the cast dancing together to establish the cultural tone of Mouth On Fire’s production. From then on, the play progresses at a steady, even pace, seamlessly seguing into the “play within the play” that the mechanicals rehearse and stage for the wedding of the Duke (Theseus) and the Queen (Hippolyta).

With all nine actors in the production juggling up to three characters each over 90 minutes, the play could seem too busy, at times, thought the cast pull it off with, seemingly, little effort:Matthew O’Brien’s Lysander has all the charisma necessary for the part, Sharon Mannionplays Hermia to her character’s naive and dilemma-stricken nature, Fionn Foley’s Puck is as jaunty and playful as expected, while Neill Fleming’s Egeus, Hermia’s disapproving father, is as shrewd and determined as expected and a lynchpin in terms of the play’s action.

Closing the performance with cast introductions performed against the soundtrack of Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’ and in a manner that can only be likened to hit TV series Glee, it becomes more apparent that Mouth On Fire’s production will either delight those who seek fresh productions of Shakespeare or disappoint purists who might find the coupling of Shakespeare and glam rock is nothing more than a gimmick. With a strong cast and an imaginative creative team, however, it’s hard to fault.

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Theatre review: A Tender Thing

Originally published by Entertainment.ie, Wednesday 29th January, 2014. To read the original please click here

A Tender Thing, Ben Power’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

In his essay ‘Reimagining Shakespeare’, featured in the program for A Tender Thing, Patrick Lonergan states, quite rightly, that “…every generation of theatre-makers and audiences feel the need to reinvent Shakespeare”. The impulse to visually contemporise Shakespeare in theatre and in film – be it West Side Story, or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet – is testament to the longevity of Shakespeare’s themes: be they love unfulfilled, the downfall of powerful leaders, or health and social issues that remain, in the news, to this day, such as dementia and euthanasia.

The success of A Tender Thing, Ben Power’s daring and visionary adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring tragedies, is that it somehow manages to remain true to the muscular, romantic and poetic intensity of Shakespeare’s original text, while feeling truly original and fresh with subtle visual dimensions that shine through in Selina Cartmell’s direction and Monica Frawley’s set design.

The set – a bedroom with symmetrical wall lamps and bedside lockers, an en suite, featured upstage left, as well as featuring the central characters dressed in bedclothes – immediately recalls Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, particularly the bedroom of Ayckbourn’s ageing married couple, Ernest and Delia, albeit without the hilarity of Ayckbourn’s comedy. While Ayckbourn’s ageing couple spend most of their time delivering their lines from their bed, however, Owen Roe (Romeo) delivers his soliloquies with his back turned to a bed-ridden Juliet (Olwen Fouéré).

Olwen Fouéré as Juliet

At the centre of Power’s adaptation are two very contrasting performances that encapsulate the central dichotomies of Power’s adaptation. Owen Roe is, quite simply, Romeo as you’ve never seen him: Roe delivers soliloquies in a manner that is unexpectedly natural and less laboured. Much of the verbal force and energy of Power’s adaptation comes through in Roe’s predominantly verbal performance. The opening moments in which Roe bellows “Give me the light!”, downstage left, grabs the audience’s attention; once gained, Roe’s performance relaxes into natural, unforced tones that reflect the stripped down nature Power’s adaptation.

Contrasting sharply with Roe’s nuanced performance is a magnificent and startling performance from Olwen Fouéré. A master-class in physical acting, Fouéré’s brave performance brilliantly articulates Juliet’s terminal decline, while at the same time working closely with Sinéád Wallace’s subtle use of light, which is true to the mostly- silent nature of Fouéré’s performance. Wallace’s lighting, at times, almost feels like another character in the adaptation.

Featured on back on the play’s program is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, in which The Great Bard writes “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom”. In Ben Power’s slow-burning adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, we get a sense, over 90 minutes, of that doom through a compressed and consistent adaptation, full of imagination and, most of all, heart.

A Tender Thing runs at the Project Arts Centre until 15th February.

Star rating: 4 / 5
Venue: Project Arts Centre

Written by: Ben Power (adapted from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)
Directed by: Selina Cartmell
Cast: Olwen Fouéré (Juliet), Owen Roe (Romeo)