Ahead of their new play, the Rude Mechanicals have a staging problem. The painstaking acting troupe in Shakespeare’s comedy are rehearsing a scene where two lovers meet, but their venue lacks a window to allow for moonlight. The solution is practical if not as impressive: one actor will play Moonshine.
It isn’t lost on anyone during director Lynne Parker’s superb production for Rough Magic and Kilkenny Arts Festival, staged in the Castle Yard under the night sky, that the impossible has been achieved. In fact, the play feels fresh at nearly every turn, with some of its meanings transformed into something new. What a most rare vision.
It’s shocking to see Shakespeare’s Athenians intimidating like soldiers, as young Hermia (Karen McCartney) is instructed to forget her lover Lysander (Kieran Roche) and marry Demetrius (Paul Mescal). With Denis Clohessy’s extraordinary music, this feels like a serious affront to a woman’s rights, but the emphasis also sets up AoibhÃ©ann McCann’s lovelorn Helena as an unlikely fighter. “We should be wooed, and were not made to woo,” she resents, cursing the status quo.
Parker can impressively find these darker hues while staying true to the comedy’s tangled romances and magical interventions. Fairy king Oberon, sumptuous in the shape of Peter Corboy, tasks Amy Conroy’s terrific and flirting Puck to cause havoc with a love potion. Desires are misdirected, and the script gains some modern cadence. (“Content with Hermia? LOL”).
Such invention is everywhere, and most compelling when Titania (wonderfully cold-hearted in Martha Breen’s performance) is bewitched. Katie Davenport’s sublime costuming, dashing with sequins and furs, is made opalescent by Sarah Jane Shiels’s breath-taking lighting. It perfectly captures the conceit of a production where the fairies’ magic is electricity.
By making the supernatural world of Shakespeare’s play appear man-made, new resonance can be found in Titania’s descriptions of over-flowing rivers and rotting crops. “The human mortals want their winter here,” she says in the middle of summer, as if foreseeing the catastrophic effects of climate change.
But the best traction will be found in the meeting of the play’s four lovers. Demetrius, impulsive and rowdy in the form of Mescal, tackles Roche’s guileless Lysander. McCann’s Helena domineers over Hermia, played by a nicely exaggerated McCartney. This generates the real energy.
Though the ending is heavy-handed, there’s something miraculous about a phosphorescent-bright production that revels in human folly, while also admonishing it. We see the intensely serious playwright Peter Quince wallow over a flask, before writing a new prologue: “If we offend it is with our good will.” That intent has rarely felt clearer.
Kilkenny Art Festival is on until 19 August 2018. Click here for more details.