Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The language of love
— Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream

The language of love — Dream 2007 at Schungfabrik
by Duncan Roberts

Believe it or not, Mickey Rooney is probably responsible for my love of Shakespeare. At the age of nine, a television screening of his performance as Puck in William Dieterle’s 1935 production of A Midsummer Nights Dream was my first conscious contact with the Bard’s work. I clearly remember talking about the film to schoolmates the following day, and sniggering because there was a fellow called Bottom in the film (famously played by James Cagney).

Rooney’s performance has been savaged by critics down the years as excessive and over-the-top. Mercifully, there was little of that on evidence last week in Tony Kingston’s production of Dream 2007, an ambitious project that took the separate worlds so clearly delineated in Shakespeare’s play to another level by distinguishing them through language. Kingston, who has worked in Berlin, chose German, Luxembourgish and English as his three languages — though perhaps it would have been more reflective of Luxembourg’s demographics to have French rather than German.

The German, you see, posed the biggest problem with this production. Used by the lovers Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, as well as others at the court of Theseus, it was often incomprehensible as a few of the actors —the non-native speakers— struggled with their diction and swallowed consonants under hurried lines. Not all were guilty — and much of the acting from the lovers was of a very good standard — but it did cause a stirring unease in this writer as the play opened. Then again, the director himself has said that audiences come to watch a Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Mechanicals and the Fairies, and so it was with a thump of relief that the former burst on stage.

They made their entrance singing popular local drinking song “Kättchen, Kättchen...”, and that set their stall — loud and proud, Henner (Bottom), Quill (Quince), Schnauz (Snout) and the others are the comic relief the play so badly requires. Jean Schmit and Christiane Feinen-Thibold, as Bottom and Quince, commanded the stage with their booming sing-song Luxembourgish, and were ably supported by their companions. Schmit was actually responsible for the translation of the text into Luxembourgish, and did a bang-up job — he had much fun later when Bottom gets to play with the fairies and takes great delight in rolling names such as Moschtardkaer (mustard seed) off his tongue. He turned out to be pretty much the star of the show and towards the climax, when the mechanicals perform their production of Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding guests, he lead the Mechanicals in one of the funniest scenes witnessed on the Luxembourg stage in recent years.

Schmit was matched by Matej Skorjak as Puck, a fantastically physical performer whose Slovenian accent proved just perfect for the mischievous fairy. Skorjak had the audience transfixed whenever he addressed them, and although his acrobatics were limited by the size of the venue, they lent a fresh dynamic to the production. He was joined by the wonderfully expressive Donatienne Spiteri, whose face lit up the stage as Cobweb, and the elegant pairing of Bjørn Clasen and Jessica Whitely as Oberon and Titania —the latter providing the sort of clear diction so lacking among the lovers.

Live music and dance provided more sideshow entertainment and was performed with grace and style — although perhaps a touch more pep would have livened up the last dance, especially during the Shakira sequence. The simplicity of the set allowed the perfect costumes to shine.

So, did the experiment in language work? Well, yes and no. Separating the different worlds by language fulfils Kingston’s vision of Luxembourg providing the link between different nationalities, a reflection of the country’s international character. How many in the audience would have understood all three languages is questionable — all around were whispers of translation, while others followed the handy synopsis to follow the plot during a “foreign” language scene.

But the rapturous applause that greeted the final curtain was well deserved — this was a brave and unique production and it was just reward for the hard work put in by all over the last six months or so.

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