Review: Crude Mechanicals

A play within a play is without its cast. Can a stage manager save the day?

Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin

***

In nearly 420 years, the world has yet to see a decent performance of Peter Quince's A Tedious Brief Scene of Young Pyramus And His Love Thisbe: Very Tragical Mirth. As plays within plays go, however, this well-intended, excruciatingly executed piece from A Midsummer Night's Dream was never likely to do well. There were script problems from day one; the amateur performers, or "rude mechanicals", had profound creative differences; the reviews were merciless ("The silliest stuff that I ever heard" – Hippolyta; no stars). If the play was revived today, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, you could lose your entire cast for starters, a nightmare articulated by our meek and panicked stage manager, who peers into the audience and asks, "Is there an actor in the house?" The joke is doubly funny, because its speaker is Clare Barrett, one of the most gifted comic actors in the country. The production isn't clear why it falls to the stage manager to perform the play single-handedly; by necessity or enchantment? But that is the pitch and promise of Crude Mechanicals, created by Barrett and director Karl Quinn: to put a virtuoso performance to the service of a comic mess.

Barrett’s challenge is to depict five performers, from the preening ham Nick Bottom and airy sylph Elaine Flute as the leads, to the timid Shiofra Snug (who makes a cowardly lion) and a jockish Jarleth Snout as the wall (a part he was born to play). Quinn and Barrett confine any further story of unreciprocated attractions and outrageous flirtations to the margins, while Barrett pirouettes between her roles as befits its source, a comedy of romantic transformation.

It’s an admirable display, but it misses something afforded to Shakespeare’s stumblebums, namely a reality outside performance. Barrett works hard, but without the sense of pressure or consequence that bedevils the original. Reducing a work of ambitious scale to a one-person show could be a satire on multitasking Irish theatre in straitened times, but Quinn maintains a more gentle agenda, a celebration of performance itself.

The collapse of the show here may be mechanical, but to watch it go so carefully wrong, its makers know, is to appreciate the hard work and little miracles of a performance going right. Until August 16