A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)

02

In Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, Nicholas Ridout writes about the moments when theatre breaks down. His book investigates all those glitches – the stutter, the laugh, the unexpected interruption of a creature on stage – when the theatrical machinery temporarily halts and we see the true nature of the event unfolding before us. In Ridout’s words, “something of our relationship to labour and to leisure is felt every time the theatre undoes itself around the encounter between worker and consumer”.

Dmitry Krymov’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or more accurately, on its play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe – looks a lot like Ridout’s thesis writ large. This is not really about love or fairies or Shakespeare; this is about theatre. Theatre in all its pretending, its failure, its illusion, its beauty, its exquisite silliness.

It is also theatre as work. It is more than just comedy that has drawn Krymov and his company to the Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s play; they also represent, as their collective title suggests, the labour that goes into stage illusion. In a programme note, Krymov says that he couldn’t see himself in either the courtly or the magical worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I am not a fairy,” he explains, “I am a craftsman.” Theatre is not magic conjured from thin air – it is craft.

And yet …

Recently, while interviewing playwright Alistair McDowall, we talked about the idea of theatre as magic trick. We agreed that the reason this particular analogy works so well is that it suggests both the thrill of illusion and the strings that make everything work. As audience members, we at once want to see the workings – the workings that we know to be there in the background – and to be taken in by what we see before us. To contradict myself, theatre is magical, but magical in the sense of a magic trick; we know that skill and work goes into it.

As in the usual staging of the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Krymov’s production positions us both as the audience of Pyramus and Thisbe and as external observers of another audience: the courtiers the Mechanicals have been charged with entertaining. In this imagining they are haughty and distracted, checking messages on their smartphones and interjecting with their derision, disapproval and occasional outrage. If we see a picture of ourselves, it’s not a flattering one.

As for the players, they’re a suitably ragtag bunch, trussed up in scruffy black tie like children playing dress-up. Their set and props, meanwhile, are crudely thrown together, even down to the sawdust coated scaffold on which their audience are directed to sit. There’s no forgetting that these are labourers and that the show they (eventually) present is as much a construction as their wonky, makeshift auditorium.

So it’s all the more extraordinary when we do, by some strange theatrical alchemy, get drawn into the tale being told. After a lengthy introduction, lightly touching on ideas of art, entertainment and intention, Krymov’s Mechanicals finally get around to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who take the form of two towering, mismatched puppets. Pyramus has a portrait for a head; Thisbe balances precariously on one ballet shoe and one boot. They are fragile and ridiculous – not all that different from their human operators, then, or the theatrical event itself.

At first, what charm us are the tricks. Acrobats balance and somersault; the Mechanicals’ dog – the indisputable star of the show – even turns a backflip. We are at the circus, operating in an economy of gasps and giggles, occasionally ruptured by an interjection that causes a stumble, a mistake. Then something unexpected happens. Under just the right light, with just the right musical accompaniment, there is something incredibly tender about this pair of ungainly figures, and something happens that pretty much never happens in other Dreams: we feel for these star-crossed lovers. But these moments are brittle – easily snapped.

One sequence from a long procession of images stands out. In the glow of their initial ardour, Pyramus and Thisbe dance. This is no effortless waltz; the meeting of the two puppets’ bodies is a frenetic feat of manoeuvring, requiring a large team of performers. Watching the rickety figures spin around the stage, two opposing things become simultaneously true: the moment is both beautiful and oddly moving, and at the same time conspicuous in its feverish craft. Labour and illusion at once – the magic trick.

“This is the nature of theatre,” Krymov states elsewhere in the programme, “this is how theatre is created.” Precisely.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz.

Opus No 7, Barbican

opus2

If you haven’t seen Opus No 7 and you still have an opportunity to, stop reading now.

Go see it.

There’s not really a plot as such to spoil, but the below will unavoidably outline some of the images that gain so much of their power from surprise. So be warned.

Dmitry Krymov has a talent for making the ordinary appear strange, for transforming the familiar into the singular. Limbs explode from cardboard walls, startlingly divorced from the bodies that own them. Splashes of black paint morph into shadowy figures. A blizzard of newspaper scraps conjures debris one moment and confetti the next. The dead hold hands with the living. The inanimate is given life. Image bursts into reality and reality solidifies into image.

Opus No 7, the designer turned director’s latest production, is a dazzling procession of such transformations. So composed is it of images, the performance does not yield willingly to language. As elusive as it is astonishing, its qualities slip from the critical grasp – shape-shifting, like Krymov’s captivating pictures, just as the mind begins to outline them. This is theatre made for feeling, not thinking.

There is a structure of sorts, though this too is elusive. The first half, Genealogy, yawns with loss. In it, a group of figures sift through fragments of history, clutching at names, photographs, items of clothing. Phoenix-like, they move among the ashes of the past. Though abstract, the scenes allude in their haunting imagery to the Holocaust – but strikingly unshackled from the now familiar visual markers that history has attached to it. In its sudden, surprising evocation of loss, there is something inexplicably moving about a performer walking along a pair of tiny red shoes by their laces, or a cardboard arm suddenly reaching up to take that same performer’s hand.

The second half offers us a visual biography of composer Dmitry Shostakovich, who we see first nurtured and then smothered by an oppressive Mother Russia. As a child-like figure at the opening of the act, hugging to Mother Russia’s skirts, the wooden skeleton of a piano is Shostakovich’s climbing frame, his creativity given free and playful rein. But the same power that initially encouraged the composer later ensnares him, pinning a medal on his chest that stabs him through the heart. As Soviet repression and censorship reaches its height, Mother Russia pulls the trigger on her artists and the piano bursts into flame.

opus1

Fittingly, given the subject of the second act, Opus No 7 operates more like music than theatre. It is, for a start, largely wordless. There are echoes and refrains: the chilling tread of an SS officer in the first half becomes the boot of Mother Russia – realised as a huge and often terrifying puppet – in the second. Silence and stillness are juxtaposed with furious flurries of activity, as pitch and tempo both fluctuate. The theatrical crescendo, as rusty pianos invade the stage and crash violently into one another, is powerful as much for the accompaniment of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No 7” as it is for what we see.

And the performance provoked in me the kind of raw, visceral, emotional response that I more readily associate with music – and, interestingly, with visual art – than with theatre. When I walk around a gallery or listen to a piece of music, my reaction (at least my first reaction) is instinctive rather than cerebral. If I really, really love a painting or a sculpture or a song, the feeling it stirs is perhaps best described as an ache; pleasure bruised with just a hint of pain. Opus No 7 leaves behind that same sort of ache.

At one point during the first half, I remember thinking: there’s too much. Not, I should hastily add, in a negative way. At the Barbican, we are seated on the stage of the main theatre, thrillingly close to the action. It is a wide, wide stage. Placed right up close to the performance, it is therefore impossible to take in everything that is happening at one time – the playing space is just too big. The experience of watching, then, is to a degree overwhelming. And I wonder if this is part of its power. Like the aesthetic sublime, it is too much to take in at once, to comprehend as a whole. For that reason, it both awes and captivates.

Watching theatre like this, I’m aware more than ever of the visual poverty of so much of what we see on Britain’s stages. Where, apart from a scattering of bold efforts, is our designer-led theatre? The visual, as Krymov and his team prove, can be just as eloquent as the verbal. Opus No 7 is no less rich for its scarcity of language; ideas, though slippery, still move under its mesmerising surface of unforgettable images. The impact is indescribable, yet indelible.

Photos: Natalia Cheban.