By BRUCE DENNILL
In a theatre calendar populated with classic hits (The Sound Of Music and Mamma Mia are both returning soon for new runs), tradition-drive pantomimes and nostalgic tribute shows, it should perhaps not be too surprising that Shakespeare’s work remains a drawcard.
But it does – and how! Barring just a beat at the beginning of the show as an adjustment is made to the metre and form of the dialogue, the Maynardville Open-Air Festival/VR Theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream showcases all that made Shakespeare such a unique genius. He wrote, 400 years ago – and it still holds up today – with such a profound understanding of the different facets and foibles of the way people act and interact with and around each other, that there is something to relate to on stage at all time, whether it is the portrayal of one specific character or an amalgam of two or more. So there is awkwardness, pride, desire, uncertainty, joy and sadness, all mashed up together. And in …Midsummer, there is humour: densely packed, perfectly delivered humour, both cheesy and cerebral, which results in a general audience wheeziness as they struggle for air after repeated belly laughs.
It’s an ensemble effort from the off, and well cast to ensure that each role is unpacked and celebrated to the fullest.
Immediately making an impact – he’s first on stage – is Caleb Swanepoel as Puck. Built for the role in terms of his physique and dark, intense looks, Swanepoel is also an amputee, missing part of his right leg after a shark attack in 2015. He already achieves extraordinary things elsewhere, being a highly-rated para-surfer, but this early foray into professional acting suggests that he has another career to pursue if he chooses to do so. His Puck is both mischievous and a touch scary; both naïve and a little depraved – all necessary for the interfering mythological character to be compelling on stage.
Chi Mhende as both Hippolyta and Oberon, in a smart and effective tweaking of the traditions and tropes of early Shakespearean performances, in which women were always played by men, has vivid, magisterial presence, having something in her carriage and delivery that takes up space in the way that royalty and those in high authority always have.
Everyone is good, equal to both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the script, as well as the choreography of both mind and body required for the script to be best interpreted. For this, director Geoffrey Hyland must take a great deal of credit – his hand is evident in the craft but never intrusive in the outcome.
Best of all, in both his main role as Nick Bottom the weaver and as Pyramus in the play-within-a-play responsible for a large chunk of the audience laughter, is Mark Elderkin. He’s an experienced performer of not only Shakespeare but Shakespeare’s comedies (Twelfth Night, As You Like It), and so comes across as able to combine every tic, gesture, pause and expression needed to completely convince without any effort whatsoever.
This production produces, in the foyer afterwards, almost wall-to-wall goofy grins and proclamations of Shakespeare’s brilliance and how well it’s been decoded here. This Joburg staging is its third iteration already – may there be many more.