In the first sentence of Empty Space, Peter Brook boldly declared, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage”. True, but could Brook produce a good piece of theatre from that empty space? Certainly the challenges are apparent: without the foyer, the comfortable seats and the plush red curtain it’s harder to pull the audience into the illusion, to let them know that they’re in a theatre and need to let go of their everyday disbelief. Moreover, once such challenges are surmounted, there is the need to make that space more than just a gimmick. However, I can happily report that on both counts director Milly Cooper and her talented cast have scored a resounding success and the result, Popular Mechanicals, NUTS’s first outdoor theatre performance, is a ramshackle joy from start to finish.
Originally written by Tony Taylor and Keith Robinson, Popular Mechanicals seizes Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream and gives it a good thrashing. The kings and fairies and fairy kings are dispensed with leaving us trapped in the forest with the hilarious mechanicals as they try to slap together a show for the King’s wedding. The stage, circa back of the Co-Op bookstore, already a tangled wreath of vines and overhanging trees, is festooned with bright, glimmering lights and it is a neat trick on the part of Cooper and her stagecrew that they have managed to take a place so banally familiar to most ANU students and then completely transform it into a mythical grove.
The actors are clearly smitten by their surroundings and scurry about with an infectious energy, the choreography smartly planned out to give them the best opportunity to use the space. They bound up the concrete seating, scramble through the chaparral bush and even play gymnastics with the bike racks. Somehow they still have breath to speak the script, which is a pastiche of Shakespeare’s poetry, scatological vaudeville, razor-sharp wordplay and jokes which would be Dad-jokes if any father could possibly be shameful enough to claim them as his own.
One of the greatest challenges for any actor is to make Shakespeare funny—something the dastardly sot Sir Ralph Mouldy knowingly remarks in the play itself—and yet the actors galvanise Shakespeare’s words, bending and twisting the lines with such skill as to wrench out the laughs kept dusty for so many centuries. The infamous and “most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” is deflty performed, with particular kudos for the stringy AJ Proudford who plays Thisbe with a devilish joy, deftly contorting his body in lively caricatures of the female form.
But surprisingly enough, it’s in the parts between the Shakespeare which are the most fun. The music soars across the night, the mechanicals—peculiarly gifted singers for mere artisans I might add—unleashing a roster of songs which run the gamut from bawdy music hall, to macabrely wistful ditties about the joys of Tudor England. Oliver Lee playing the ever-obliging, always-suffering Peter Quince, is a great straightman and Seth Robinson as Bottom is as cocksure as he is loveable, delightfully hamming it up for the audience and bringing the best out the role. Yet the most brilliant performance is by Sarah NT as Snug, whose daffy clowning and snaky wordplay expose a confident and dazzling talent. Snug’s two-man act with the giddy Robin Snout (played by Clare Cavanagh) is a too-brief window of Absurdist theatre, is a standout.
Proudly frivolous, Popular Mechanicals is a celebration of just that, the popular elements of theatre. To quote Brook once more, “its always the popular theatre that saves the day,” always making sure Drama is rescued from its own worst tendencies of becoming too stuffy, ritualistic and high brow. “Amateurs!” hisses the odious Mouldy, the closest thing the play has to a villain. But the insult falls flat on deaf ears, Peter Quince boldly picking apart the word to its Latin roots, in turn revealing the ancient traditions of the popular that still enliven the theatre today. Yes, they may be amateurs, but you’re guaranteed to love every moment just as much as they do.
So bring a blanket and some cushions, sit yourself down, and spend a Summer’s night watching these mechanicals play out their dreams.
Tuesday 15 to Saturday 19 October, 7:30pm