A Midsummer Night’s Dream laced with glee, invention and a shiver of anxiety

Review: Lynne Parker directs an Irish take on Shakespeare at Kilkenny Arts Festival

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Castle Yard, Kilkenny

Performances of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe never did run smooth. In fairness, the play within Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream encountered creative differences from day one: an amateur cast riven by power struggles and incompetence; a set design waiting for technology to catch up with its imagination; an impatient audience eager to get to bed. There, but for the grace of rehearsals, goes every company that ever staged this comedy.

In Rough Magic and Kilkenny Arts Festival’s new outdoor staging, the affiliation becomes a kind of in-joke. In the Rude Mechanicals’ jumble of bright costumes, vigorous multiple role play and discreet audience interaction is a funhouse mirror of Rough Magic’s infinitely more competent processes, pursuing a kitschy, rough hewn aesthetic. Perhaps this is the company’s dream, laced with glee, invention and a shiver of anxiety.

Recruiting an ensemble of young performers, director Lynne Parker and designers Sarah Jane Shiels (lighting and set) and Katie Davenport (costume) imagine this Athenian court as a military complex, fresh from war. Here, the young lovers defy their wheezing elders in both deed and fashion sense, subverting berets and army camouflage with insurgent colours and punk tartan. It's quite a nostalgic vision of youth culture.


There is as much friction in the forest, though, to where they escape, divided between fighting fairy couple Oberon – whom Peter Corboy makes a preening, snake-hipped rockstar – and Martha Breen's Titania, an icy dissenter who shimmers in silver like a disco ball. Their quarrel, we are told, has sent the elements into disarray, and though the production seeks to represent that conflict as an electrical storm, given the surge and flicker of Shiels' lights and the rumble and clap of Denis Clohessy's sound score, it doesn't resonate as clearly as the performances.

Even the depiction of watching attains a harder edge: the Rude Mechanicals performing not for the cynical court but for a new audience of merciless fairies

Then again, nothing is quite as disordered or comic as the radical fickleness of desire. Aoibhéann McCann’s lovelorn Helena is a tormented joy, taking masochistic comfort from spurn, but appalled when Paul Mescal’s ramrod Demetrius and Kieran Roche’s drippy Lysander – both recently enchanted – begin to pursue her – “Can you not hate me as I know you do?” – much to the chagrin of Karen McCartney’s enjoyably determined Hermia.

That limpid character work registers better than the staging concept. The set here is essentially the audience, divided across a traverse into two glumly functional seating banks. Giving Puck an impishness both timeless and contemporary, Amy Conroy best knows how to animate them. At one beautifully extemporary moment, enthralled by Conor O'Riordan's amusing ham actor Bottom made an ass in the chaos of her creation, she reached over to share a young girl's popcorn. What kind souls these mortals be.

Parker otherwise makes fairy intervention deliberately aggressive, having Puck subdue the lovers with electronic lashes and hurled thunderbolts. Even the depiction of watching attains a harder edge: the Rude Mechanicals performing not for the cynical court but for a new audience of merciless fairies. A spirited, surprise disco makes further amends, but that dream is intriguing, defusing an opposition not just between generations, fairies and elements but between a plucky company and a tough crowd.

Until Saturday, August 18th