CW – mention of sexual assault.
By Emily Oliver
Charlie Barnett’s striking openness and immediate vulnerability coupled with Adela Hernandez Derbyshire’s strength in her conviction and irrefutable stage presence formed the backbone of Esalan Gates’ ‘The Lovers’, a modern retelling of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. However, it was Charlie Howe’s Lysander and Tom Pyle’s Demetrius who provided the most food for thought. Two of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters rewritten by a woman. Humanized and made more complex than they were ever permitted to be in the original text, we saw a sweet, insecure Lysander and a Demetrius trapped by politics, obsessed with outward image and with a disregard for what happens behind closed doors. As a four, the standard of talent was exemplary and their individual performances were continually sensitive and nuanced. The balance of their monologues was beautifully done but in comparison, some of the dialogue scenes were a little weaker.
I enjoyed the use of visceral body imagery to comment on feelings and instincts and what occurs when they are subverted. Gates’ writing had clear moments of poetic beauty. The theme of classism that ran throughout was effectively deployed in order to create a pertinent resonance with our Durham community, though I would have liked to see it explored in greater depth. The decision to imply sexual assault through the words of Helena was an interesting one, seeing as in the original play Demetrius openly threatens to assault her in the woods. Gates’ grasp of such important themes was wonderful to see, but I hope she will be encouraged to push her politics further in her future work.
Gates’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic displayed a love and reverence for the original text. However, her decision to delve into the psychological unravelling of the characters was undermined to a certain extent due to the fact that from whatever way you look at it, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a very funny play. The farcical scenes of the lovers’ interchangeable affections can never truly translate to high drama as the whole point of the situation is that the stakes are never high. It could have been more effective if the madness of the woods was exaggerated; the spooky lullaby music felt a little lacklustre.
It is a shame to not utilize the technological capabilities of the AR to their fullest extent, and though the LEDs looked good, green for the forest is a little obvious. Lighting and sound could have been better used to draw the audience into the intoxicating otherness of the setting, where the constraints of society and self do not apply. Nevertheless, Gates maintained the bold directorial decision to keep the production stripped back and clean in order to showcase her perceptive and clean writing style. There was never a word out of place, the whole production was well-paced and slick whilst leaving us wanting more.
‘Everyman’ must be commended on the sheer joy in performing conveyed by the ensemble. They threw themselves into a series of whacky characterisations with such commitment and energy that the audience couldn’t help being on board. Having sat through DST productions where the actors were so drunk they were slurring their lines, this kind of recognition for the privilege that we maintain in being able to get up on stage and perform to an audience is something that will resonate with me long past tonight. Ben Johanson conveyed an earnest and likeable Everyman, despite occasionally lacking the intensity afforded to someone about to die. His energy was the driving force of the play and his monologues were consistently compelling and confidently delivered. The rest of the ensemble, Tansy Adams, Isabelle Bruce and Robert Morrisey, exploded rather than walked into the scenes. Their distinctive characters were endlessly entertaining and they were even able to bring humanity to the inclusions of archaic verse. More precise directing could have helped the actors draw greater nuance from the writing, and the fast pace often meant the more complex emotions were not always portrayed as clearly as they could have been.
With the removal of religion from the morality play, one is tempted to ask, what’s left? The introductions of bizarre, surreal humour and apathy were perfect for the portrayal of a modern ‘Everyman’. Some say we exist in a post-meaning society. Authenticity is dead. Art is fake. The writing was energetic and got great laughs, and was in general a whole lot more fun than I remember the original being. I suppose I remain a little uncertain on what lesson I was meant to learn. Perhaps, it’s how many covid gags a play should have: the answer is none. There should be no covid gags. It was in decidedly poor taste to have Good Deeds dying of a coughing illness. Glad I wasn’t in the front row.
Despite being visually interesting and creative, the set was crammed with props that were never interacted with. Perhaps a more minimal setting would have created a better atmosphere for the surreal interactions with physical embodiments of abstract concepts. The use of coloured LEDs enhanced these meetings and meant the mood matched that of the various characters. Apologies to all the epileptics that couldn’t watch tonight because of the seemingly unnecessary moment of strobe lighting.
Nevertheless, there were moments of unique visual interest created by the use of tech and it was continually ambitious and exciting. Particular note should be given to the river scene in which the sound design manifested a distinct otherworldliness as Everyman is cleansed of his vices. The writers, Imogen Usherwood and Laura Wildgoose, must be applauded for turning one of the driest, most boring texts studied in first-year English Literature into such a dynamic and lively piece of theatre. Full of wit, joy, and caricature-like characters this modern retelling would have the medieval God nut who wrote the original spinning in their grave.
I recommend streaming DUCT’s ‘A Night of Classical Theatre’ for two well-matched pieces of original student writing. And if you think the past should be left in the past? Talk to me when you’ve made plays that are hundreds of years old slide seamlessly into a modern context and be instantly accessible for a modern audience. The skill in craft demonstrated across these two productions should be celebrated, especially, (as ‘Everyman’ insisted on doing) when contextualised within the global pandemic.
Image: DUCT / Becky Latcham
* Note from DUCT: It should be noted that technical issues affected the lighting of the play, with a bulb being blown only 30 minutes before the start of the show.