By Issy Flower
Esalan Gates’ The Lovers makes the bold decision to strip away the comedy and the Shakespeare from Shakesperian comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presenting the dark heart underneath the laughs. Examining the questions of destiny, free will and the implications of love, Gates and her cast cleverly re-imagine a beloved tale for a modern audience.
Gates clearly knows her characters, and the play they come from, back to front, whilst imbuing them with her own characterisation. We get a clearer sense of the friendship between Helena and Hermia, for instance, whilst also learning Demetrius’ deeper motivations. The play so becomes a character piece, where the conflict between the internal self and external forces is examined to the hilt. Issues of family, money and social position are bitingly examined through a mixture of monologues and conversations, meaning that even if we meet a character on their own we can never divorce them from their role as a ‘lover’. Gates also masterfully resists the urge to incorporate Shakespeare’s dialogue, instead reinterpreting key scenes with a clear directorial instinct and with the decision to remove any kind of magic from the proceedings. Any magic in this piece comes from the words, which is perhaps the way Shakespeare would’ve wanted it.
The characters are equally well-drawn by their actors who, like so many during this DDF, have managed to create incredible chemistry despite never meeting in person. Charlie Howe’s Lysander has a chip on his shoulder, well-conveyed by Howe’s restrained bitterness, but is also the closest thing to the play’s comic relief- his nervousness around Hermia is amusing and relatable. Charlie Barnett gives her Hermia depth, retaining the original character’s playfulness and sweetness, and has an admirable determination which bounces well off her castmates. Adela Hernandez-Derbyshire too shines, combining Shakespearian intensity with a subtle despair and annoyance, and one of the joys of the play is hers and Barnett’s chemistry in their scenes- Gates has given these women greater agency, and it is lovely to see their interactions when played with a greater love for one another than for any of their partners. Tom Pyle creates a character with resolve and rationality in his interactions with others, but who falls apart when on his own. Gates, assistant director Becky Latcham and the cast must be commended in developing characters who are recognisably those you might’ve studied in Year Seven, but who gain a richness in being divorced from their original text.
The play also works remarkably well as a radio play. The contrast between the internal and external, as well as the repeated references to material things, from diamonds to hearts and ribs, are perfect for a sound world, and create a great intensity that grips the listener. The accompanying music by Salt Tank gives the play a dark, mysterious vibe, and the mixture of flashback and overlapping dialogue destablise the listener well. We are gripped by subtextual links between sexuality and violence, the difficulties of loneliness versus relationships, and of happiness and misery. Gates covers a lot of ground in a thirty eight minute piece, and pulls it off with dexterity.
The only flaw in the piece, however, is its length. The open ending, whilst fitting in with the question rather than answer led style of the piece, feels a little unrewarding, and on the strength of the piece as-is Gates could do great things by pushing it further into the crevices of the original text and even beyond. We want to see more of these characters; maybe we’d even like to see their with their Shakesperian counterparts. But this is a limit of both what DDF and pandemic drama can do, so doesn’t do much to remove our enjoyment.
Gates and team have created a drama that takes the lovers we know, breaks them down, and builds them back up again in new and exciting ways. A beautifully character led piece, with depth and style, it’s a fantastic piece of work that should, and I hope will, go further.
Image Credit: Durham University Classical Theatre