Review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Gavin Quinn at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 21st February 2015.
Reviewed by Emer McHugh
Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, NUI Galway
There is a moment towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that may have provided the springboard for Gavin Quinn’s production at the Abbey Theatre, which has recently ended its run. After being roused by Theseus and Hippolyta, and after having their personal affairs conveniently resolved, the four lovers ponder what has transpired over the last two hours. ‘Methinks I see these things with parted eye’, Hermia says, ‘When everything seems double’ (4.1.188-9). What with Helena’s comment ‘I have found Demetrius like a jewel, | Mine own and not mine own’ (4.1.190-1), this moment pinpoints the uneasy balance between reality and dreams in the play, which was given great emphasis in Quinn’s production – indeed, ‘parted eye’ is substituted for ‘double vision’ in this production, so as to hammer this home. Like the characters, we were never entirely sure what was real and what was not.
To elaborate on this sense of ‘double vision’ further, Quinn’s Dream took familiar, mundane settings and skewered them into different shapes: the production was set in a nursing home housing the four lovers and many of the Mechanicals, and gradually transformed into a heady, intoxicating fairyland in which the everyday life of the institution is drawn upon to evoke the magic of the Athenian woods. Love-in-idleness was a drug administered via a drip feed; the antidote was an anaesthetic gas; Oberon (Declan Conlon) and Titania (Fiona Bell) made their first entrance atop walkers commandeered by their respective trains. Additionally, Quinn utilised the familiar Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta double, as the benevolent doctor and nurse materialised as the fairy king and queen. As well as this, the kindly priest Philostrate (Daniel Reardon) became a Puck that resembled a cross between Pop-era Bono and Hedwig and the Angry Inch star John Cameron Mitchell. There were moments where the nursing home concept stretched: for instance, Theseus and Hippolyta’s first exchange delivered in the backroom of the home over intercom was a rather nonsensical directorial decision: why would they announce their impending nuptials in such a way? But for the most part, the woods with their gauzy yellow drapings, bold colours, hazy Eno-esque music, and touches of rock and roll created an effective dreamspace using a curious blend of the ordinary with the clinical. This dreamspace also verged on the disturbing – Titania’s intoxicated experience with Bottom (Andrew Bennett) had connotations of sexual assault, spelled out by Titania’s look of horror as the drugs wore off.
With its visual and aural aesthetic, the dreamspace also seemed to hark back to the senior lovers’ heyday. The lovers glided around this space in 1960s and 70s get-up, no longer needing their walking aids and no longer feeling the restrictions of the nursing home, where Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus (David Pearse) attempted to bully Hermia into marrying the wrong man. Of course, we could argue that the woods were a version of the reality that they already knew, thus questioning whether escape would ever be possible. But casting the lovers as senior citizens, and watching them all pursue love – whether it is unrequited or not – invites us to consider how we conceive our experiences of passion and desire, regardless of age. Recasting Egeus as Hermia’s son also leads us to consider questions of autonomy in relation to the elderly – especially when Áine Ní Mhuirí drew out the quiet assertiveness in her character in response to her son’s admonitions. Audience members may laugh at the thought of two old men fighting over a woman (as they did when I went to see the show), but this Dream sought to assert the validity of their emotional experiences.
As the dream ends, we returned to the mundane… or did we? Conlon’s Theseus still sported some of Oberon’s make-up while watching the Mechanicals’ show (anchored by Bennett’s superbly underplayed Bottom, resplendent in a referee’s kit, and which concluded with a bergomask set to Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’), and as Puck closed the show, only a curtain divided the fairyland from the nursing home. Again, that idea of double vision was at the heart of this production. Quinn’s production asks us to second-guess our assumptions at every turn – whether it is reality, whether it is real love, whether we are under the influence, whether we know what is really taking place.