The course of Shakespeare’s comedy at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, never did run smooth. “A Midsummer’s Abbey Nightmare” ran the headline of one review of the company’s first and only production in 1979, while another critic maintained: “There isn’t the element of magic to force the audience to believe that there might possibly be fairies at the bottom of an Athenian wood”. Regardless, it has maintained an allure for the avant garde director Gavin Quinn, who now seems connected to a production so long retired that you’d find it wandering the halls of a retirement home. Fittingly, as the curtain lifts on this radical interpretation, that is exactly where we are.
The comic tone is set during the stunning introduction to Aedín Cosgrove’s high-ceilinged and gold-draped set, as a large cast of staff and patients, advancing in wheelchairs and walkers, form a conga line to the strains of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. Quinn references the 1979 production insofar as he has cast actors from the original, alluding to the Abbey’s history but also demonstrating the possibilities of its future. Where traditionally Egeus (David Pearse, wonderfully bumbling) complains about his daughter Hermia’s rejection of the marriage he has arranged for her, here she is made to be his mother. This creates new connotations of ageism and dependency, insinuating that love and free will are younger categories.
That is not to say that Shakespeare’s young lovers don’t run amok. As Cosgrove artfully lights the nursing home scene to suggest an Athenian forest, we find Hermia (Áine Ní Mhuirí), Lysander (John Kavanagh), Helena (Gina Moxley) and Demetrius (Barry McGovern) kitted out in the 70s era clothes of their youth. They are discovered by fairy king Oberon (Declan Conlon, blue-bearded and omnipresent), who dispatches his servant Puck (Daniel O’Reardon, dressed like a missing member of The Clash) to put them under the effects of a love potion, with ulterior motives to best the fairy queen Titania (Fiona Bell, majestically self-possessed).
There’s no spell of realism cast to convince us of this ‘faery-land’. Rather, the staging’s transparency reveals a deconstructionist sensibility, exemplified in Bruno Schwengl’s flamboyant and strange costumes, constantly denying illusions and indicating their construction. Quinn and Cosgrove’s work with their company Pan Pan has already radically relocated several of Shakespeare’s plays, and fans of that company’s work will say that this deconstruction doesn’t go far enough. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the theatre-makers’ straightest interpretation to date but it does feel serviceable to the text, as best represented in the cheeky playfulness of Kavanagh’s Lysander and the complexities of the heart, lowly conveyed by Moxley’s Helena.
As for the veterans of the 1979 production, they’re mostly cast as the amateur theatricals The Rude Mechanicals, and you sense that it is their play-within-the-play that holds the most intrigue for the director, with its open questioning of theatrical illusion and signification. They send the evening out with a bang, thankfully with some humility thanks to Andrew Bennett’s performance as Bottom. It closes a highly inventive staging for the Abbey Theatre, with a newly politicised, dreamy and gauzy imagining of Shakespeare’s drama. A most rare vision.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the Abbey Theatre until 28 March. For more information and tickets, see the Abbey Theatre website. Image by Ros Kavanagh.