A Midsummer Night’s Fun

David Mead reports from the National Theater, Taipei
March 26, 2016

‘Crossover’ is a much used term in theatre arts, perhaps overused, but it’s hard to disagree when it’s applied to Taiwan’s Contemporary Legend Theatre (當代傳奇劇場) led by Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國). The company has long been noted for its blending of traditional Chinese Opera with Western classics in a modern, contemporary way that moves tradition forwards. The company’s first production back in 1986 was of Macbeth (as The Kingdom of Desire, 慾望城國), since when there has also been Hamlet (as War and Eternity,王子復仇記), King Lear (李爾王) and The Tempest (暴風雨). In this, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and the 30th of the company, it seems natural to return, but for the first time with a comedy: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In approach and design, Wu avoids trying to present the play as some sort of vivid reconstruction from any particular time. In most of the costume and music it has been translated into something very much of Taiwan, and of today. It’s an adaptation and interpretation that’s remarkably successful.

While having to translate must surely help get round the issue of Shakespeare’s 16th-century language, Chang Ta-cheun’s (張大春) libretto also reinterprets the Bard cleverly and creatively. Much faith has been kept with the text despite some abbreviation. If the projected English is anything to go by, very little has lost in translation. The dialogue remains full of astute and perceptive observations of human nature but Chang also works in any number of contemporary political references, satire and jokes that the audience lapped up. Best of all, though, he manages to keep much of the rhythm of it. All very Shakespearean indeed.

The troupe<br/>(front Pan Jen-run as Flute; standing (l-r) Yin Chung-min as Quince, Lin Chao-hsu as Bottom, Luo Guo-qiang as Starveling; back Wei Zhu-qiao as Snug)Photo Kuo Cheng-chang
The troupe
(front Pan Jen-run as Flute; standing (l-r) Yin Chung-min as Quince, Lin Chao-hsu as Bottom,
Luo Guo-qiang as Starveling; back Wei Zhu-qiao as Snug)
Photo Kuo Cheng-chang

The complex plot is left untouched, but there’s some extra work for Bottom (Lin Chao-hsu, 林朝緒) and his jolly band of amateur thespians (reduced here to five; there being no Snout). In a prologue that got the audience well and truly onside (although I suspect they were anyway) before the curtain had even risen, they jovially discussed how wonderful it was to be in the National Theater and what an impressive place it was. There was even a touch of audience participation as they gleefully encouraged everyone to yell back answers to questions, which of course they did with gusto. I suspect that, and some of the later bawdy goings on might not be that far from how the play might originally have been viewed.

And what fun they had when it came to their home-spun version of Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within a play that takes up most of Shakespeare’s Act V. Everything that could possibly go wrong did. Star of that show without a doubt was Snout played by Wei Zhu-qiao (魏竹嶢), here described as a mason, playing the very complaining wall between the two lovers. Toss in a few timely jokes (when a hole is punched in it so that Pyrumus and Thisbe might talk, we see the builder has used some old cooking oil cans in there too) and some cutting remarks from Wei Hai-min’s (魏海敏) increasingly bored Hippolyta and it was absolutely hilarious. I don’t ever remember laughing so much at Shakespeare that I had tears running down my face, but I did here.

Wu Hsing-kuo as Oberon (left) and Wei Hai-min as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dreamby Contemporary Legend TheatrePhoto Kuo Cheng-chang
Wu Hsing-kuo as Oberon (left) and Wei Hai-min as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Contemporary Legend Theatre
Photo Kuo Cheng-chang

Bottom in particular is not all played for laughs, though. There is a more complex side to him. When he is turned into an ass, such is the pathos that, far from wanting to laugh at his situation, you feel rather sorry for him.

Other moments of humour abound. When Egrus (Huang Yi-hao, 黃逸豪) is recanting the story, telling how Lysander wooed Hermia, the love note puts in an appearance as a paper aeroplane. When the humans wake up from Puck’s spell, well let’s just say things get a little bawdy for a moment before both couples are ‘caught in the act’! The subsequent fight between the men is a wonderful bout of false bravado; a bout of fisticuffs where neither really actually wants to hit the other. There are yet more laughs at the wedding when the guards celebrate by letting off poppers before, with another nod to the modern-day, they all whip out their mobile phones and start snapping away.

Generally getting in the way and generally making mischief was Puck, a full of energy, over-exuberant and impish imp if ever there was one. Former Cirque du Soleil performer (Billy) Chang Yi-chun (張逸軍) brought some of that to the show, surprising everyone by making his first entrance with a sequence on a corde lisse. Forever zipping in and out of proceedings his later ‘transport’ included in-line skates with wings at the back (think Hermes) and a skateboard. The audience wasn’t entirely safe either, Puck taking great delight in sprinkling fairy dust and getting up to other antics (along with the rather excitable, slightly naughty fairies) in the stalls through the interval.

The production actually has more than a hint of musical theatre about it in that large parts are spoken dialogue interrupted by songs that are sometimes operatic in style, but sometimes ballads that would not be out of place in the West End; and of course, there’s a little bit of Mendelssohn. Much credit must go to composer and conductor Owen Wang (王希文) for blending the different styles so successfully; not easy given the different approaches and practices of Chinese musical drama and opera and Western musical theatre.

Of the young human lovers, Kong Yueh-tzu’s (孔玥慈) Hermia clearly has quite a stubborn streak in among all that innocence, while Jolin Huang (黃若琳) brings some comic flair to Helena, ever-devoted to Demetrius despite everything. Chu Po-cheng (朱柏澄) as Lysander and especially the long-haired Jing Huang (黃勁棠) as Demetrius are the sort of good-looking hunks any human female might fall for. Huang in particular has quite a stage presence.

Wu Hsing-kuo as Theseus and Wei Hai-min as HippoytaPhoto Kuo Cheng-chang 2
Wu Hsing-kuo as Theseus and Wei Hai-min as Hippoyta
Photo Kuo Cheng-chang

Presiding over the mayhem, or at least attempting to, Wu’s Theseus has a grand bearing. His heart is in the right place though as he spends his time trying to keep his subjects, and especially Hippolyta, happy. As the couple argue, the initial distrust between them is plain. Although the bickering continues, by the end it’s all much more good natured as love wins out here too.

The costumes (by Kang Yen-ling, 康延齡) are a riot of colour and rich in detail. Those for Theseus and Hippolyta are very Chinese Opera-based: golden finery for him and dazzling purple, red and orange for her. Hermia is a vision in a pink, light green and sky blue long dress. Helena is in white and light blue. Things slowly get more modern as the show continues. When we reach fairyland, Oberon appears in white, Titania in shimmering, glorious gold, but best of all are those when we return to Athens after the misadventures in the woods. Theseus and Hippolyta both appear in stylish black and white numbers that could have come straight out of a top-drawer, glamorous production of My Fair Lady. Hippolyta’s hat would grace any Ascot opening day!

Stage designs by Chang Wei-wen (張維文) neatly manage to shift us from Athens to fairyland and back again without crowding the stage with set. His use of a cut out that doubles as the moon and a window through which we first see the changeling boy (six-year old Zhang Yong-xuan, 張詠媗, who already sings beautifully) was very effective. His forest is all boughs and hanging fronds.

Wonderful, wonderful stuff and the most fun I’ve had with Shakespeare in years.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Contemporary Legend Theatre can next be seen in Hsinchu (June 25), Taichung (July 1) and Tainan (July 16).