It's a kind of magic: electric midsummer night's dreams in Kilkenny Castle

Rough Magic is recharging itself with a new young company and an electrifying take on Shakespeare

Lynne Parker: “Mischief is a really big part of theatre-making. Once you get pious and restricted you’re not going to have the fluidity that you need.”

Lynne Parker: “Mischief is a really big part of theatre-making. Once you get pious and restricted you’re not going to have the fluidity that you need.”

 

Puck descends a staircase, strutting with fresh achievement, and everyone in the rehearsal room lights up.

In the middle of the long playing space, with a forest of microphone stands, the king of the fairies welcomes his servant back from a subversive mission.

Oberon:  Here comes my messenger. – How now, mad spirit?
What night-rule now about this haunted grove?
Puck: My mistress with a monster is in love.
Boom chicka wow wow, boom chicka wow wow.

Purists will notice some modern embellishment to Shakespeare’s text within Amy Conroy’s freewheeling performance, even if they have to admit she respects its metre. At this point in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon’s warring partner, the queen Titania, has had her dreams spiked, charmed by a potion to fall in love with an ass – in reality an already braying amateur performer called Bottom, recently magically transformed. Elsewhere, four young Athenian courtiers, who have defied the orders of their elders, stumble and squabble through the forest, in tangles of desire, under the influence of the same love potion. In the meantime, rehearsals for Bottom’s stumblebum theatre company, to entertain a royal wedding, are currently on hold.

Rough Magic seems like an unlikely institution: the upstart turned guardian, the grand old trickster, a company alive to continuity and regeneration

In a light-filled dance studio above the scorched yellow cricket ground of Trinity College, the scene is repeated, and each time something new is improvised. Peter Corboy’s Oberon becomes more callously indifferent (“I think it’s f***ing fantastic,” approves Conroy); Paul Mescal’s amorous soldier Demetrius gets more military in his pursuit; Karen McCartney imagines her confounded Hermia demanding answers from behind the high-beam of a torch, like an interrogator.

“The light will be good for that,” nods Lynne Parker, Rough Magic’s artistic director. It’s no small point, because by the time the scene reaches its audience this month at Kilkenny Arts Festival, in Rough Magic’s first ever outdoor performance, the light in Kilkenny Castle yard will be fading. With it, comes the new illumination of theatrical trickery.

The scene begins again, and this time Conroy breaks into a lascivious chorus from Bump n’ Grind, with less obedience to iambic pentameter. Still, the friction seems appropriate. Because Rough Magic’s show, from concept to execution, is all about generating new energy.

Rough Magic has become something of an expert in the matter. At 34 years of age, it is simultaneously one of the oldest independent companies in regular receipt of funding in Ireland, and also one of the few left standing. Formed by college graduates during a recession, it distinguished itself early with productions of contemporary plays from America and Europe, before adding original dramas written by its founders.

Sense of divilment

That de facto ensemble, to which Lynne Parker has remained intensely loyal, and her fondness, as artistic director, for intelligent material delivered with a sense of divilment has resulted in some splendid successes (Digging for Fire, Copenhagen, Improbable Frequency, Taming of the Shrew), occasional misses, and a very solid identity – one they came to share with a new generation of theatre makers. Rough Magic’s SEEDs programme – a professional mentorship scheme – is now in its 17th year, and many of the artists and producers who germinated from it have come back to work with the company. The lifeblood gets replenished.

All this has made Rough Magic seem like an unlikely institution: the upstart turned guardian, the grand old trickster, a company alive to continuity and regeneration. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play about competing generations, unexpected transformations, and a company of performers putting on a show despite every calamity, seems like an appropriate choice.

This will only be Rough Magic’s second Shakespeare production. Parker directed the play before, as a student in Trinity’s drama society Players, with a cast that included Stanley Townsend, Darragh Kelly, Pauline McLynn and Martin Murphy (“all of that shower”), essentially a prototype Rough Magic. Now Parker has convened a new ensemble of young performers and designers to work across two productions - the same team returns in September for Arthur Riordan’s adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which premieres at Dublin Theatre Festival before touring the country until November. They’re putting the band back together.

“This was something I’ve had in my heart for so long: to return to an ensemble company that’s together for a long stretch of time,” Parker says, when the rehearsal breaks for lunch and we retreat, perversely, from the light to a windowless dressing room in the basement. “That means you can really interrogate things, not only what the shows throw up, but also what the actors are interested in.” In some ways, the new ensemble is also a brain trust, generating ideas and possibly scratch nights for new material while on tour. “So it’s almost an identical form to the very first Rough Magic company,” says Parker. “It’s a project that is slightly more than the sum of its parts.”

‘Climate change’

It’s hard to say, judging from her recent work, whether Parker’s fascination these days is with rebirth or annihilation. Her last production was Shane Mac an Bhaird’s Melt, an eccentric piece about catastrophe on a human and global scale. For all the playfulness of today’s rehearsal, her take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is similarly minded. “When you do any show, you want to see how it speaks to the world around us,” she says. “With Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s pretty obvious: there’s a great central speech that is dealing with the effect on the world of climate – climate change. That’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s a really interesting part.”

That speech belongs to Titania, who describes the weather in open revolt precipitated by the characters’ actions: the land has flooded, the crops died, and sickness reigns. “And through this distemperature we see/ The seasons alter,” warns the fairy queen.

“The speech itself has more sweep and gravitas and majesty than anything else in the play,” says Parker. “So it’s a serious nub. Of course [Shakespeare] weaves around it this fantastic farce of upended human emotions. But she says herself, ‘This same progeny of evils comes from our dissent.’ Their rage against each other is feeding into this dreadful upheaval in the climate.” Parker throws her hands up, with the sort of rhetorical gesture that sweeps you into her vision. “Well, if you want a metaphor for what’s going on right now, with G7, Nato and all that palaver . . .”

The influence on Parker’s career of her uncle, the playwright and cerebral rascal Stewart Parker, has always been conspicuous

There is, inevitably, a touch of bardolatry here, a tendency to see omniscience and even prophesy in the words of Shakespeare. But, during an unprecedented drought, after an unprecedented cold snap, while politics as we knew it is alarmingly derailed, you have to take her point. A world turned upside down has some benefits, though. “Well, I’m rather hoping the rain stays away for the two weeks of the play,” Parker concedes.

If the disaster in this production is man-made, so are the enchantments. “What is magic?” asks Parker. “I’m very interested in the idea of electricity as natural magic.” Parker’s father, George, was the avionics manager for Short Brothers aircraft factory in Belfast, where he installed radars, and she grew up fascinated with electronics and physics – the unseen forces surging around us. It’s there in her work, in the scientific fixations of Copenhagen and Improbable Frequency, and often in her conversation too. More than once, Parker has described oppositions within a play to me as “the positive and negative terminals between which the electricity flows”. 

In this production, the idea becomes a guiding light, where the cast double up to play multiple parts, and each performer gets to play one role and its mirror opposite. Corboy, for instance, is both the sex god Oberon and the meek, emasculated labourer Francis Flute – positive and negative terminals. The influence on Parker’s career of her uncle, the playwright and cerebral rascal Stewart Parker, has always been conspicuous; the influence of her father, George, perhaps fittingly, is more invisible.

“I just grew up knowing that electricity was an enormous force,” she says, adding with vaudevillian pivot, “Well, it sent me to school.” She continues. “It just seems to me that that is magic, the thunderbolt. And the sense that there’s current all around us.”

Electricity

In her staging, electricity is another natural force in open revolt; once harnessed by humanity, like a beast of burden, it is now rebelling against us. “One of the notions we’re working with is that the electrical forces in the play are starting to break free of their bondage – so electricity is now in the air. It’s just too obvious not to bring that into play when you’re dealing with human attraction.”

So now, as desires among mortals, fairies and beasts flare and flicker, so do the set embellishments in Kilkenny Castle yard. In Sarah Jane Shiels design, a contemporary setting crumbling under conflict, those microphone stand trees are replaced with pixel strips – programmable screens which dance with colour and imagery. Or, as Parker puts it, “they begin to get a bit frisky”.

That may be the agenda for the company as well: still frisky after all these years. “Mischief is a very big part of the play,” reasons Parker. “If you can’t have that freedom then you can’t get where you need to be. So, Amy [Conroy, who plays Puck] has a certain licence to do anything she feels like.”

We are speaking shortly after Rough Magic published its gender equality in the workplace policy (together with nine other organisations), while assisting ITI’s dignity in the workplace pilot scheme. Parker welcomes such affirmations, another positive achievement of Waking the Feminists, but maintains that this has always been Rough Magic’s practice.

It is not especially significant, she says, that the casting of Puck here is gender blind; Conroy is just the right person for the job. “There are people who are a little bit unsettled by the ideas of quotas and all that,” she says. “To be honest, it’s a small hurdle to overcome. We have not consciously made that [gender] balance, we have simply opted for it because it seemed like the right thing to do.”

It also affords the ensemble the security to cut loose. “Mischief is a really big part of theatre-making. Once you get pious and restricted you’re not going to have the fluidity that you need. That can only be sustained by a company which offers a completely gender-balanced, respectful, dignified, fun environment.”

That is the earth for Parker’s electric dreams, where the energy flows between opposing terminals – respect and divilment, catastrophe and regeneration, love and hate – to allow for surprising new amperage. Or, as Shakespeare himself put it, “The course of true love never did run smooth/ Boom chicka wow wow.”

Rough Magic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs from August 9th-18th at Kilkenny Arts Festival. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man runs from September 26th-October 7th as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival 

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