Two stories, two worlds and a masterpiece of staging: The Dreamer

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh
August 11, 2017

David Mead


Created by Gecko’s associate director Rich Rusk, and movement director Chris Evans, and an international collaboration between Gecko and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (上海話劇藝術中心), The Dreamer (驚夢) blends driven movement, a wonderful soundscape and terrific design with the two classic texts.

Although inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Peony Pavilion by his Chinese contemporary, Tang Xianzu, the focus is very much on the Shakespeare, and specifically on Helena (played by Yang Ziyi, 楊子奕), a timid, put-upon office worker in a dead-end job who pines for Demetrius (Lan Haimeng, 蘭海蒙) and dreams of Du Liniang (Wu Jingwei, 吳靜為) the ill-fated heroine of Tang’s play.

Not understanding Chinese is not a problem since, although there are snatches of text (references to people’s names help a lot in determining who is who), the story is largely played out physically.

The DreamerPhoto Yin Xuefeng
The Dreamer
Photo Yin Xuefeng

If there was a prize for best staging at the Fringe, The Dreamer would surely win it. There are some stunning visual moments as the cast flip between worlds real and imagined. The timing is brilliant throughout. Changes occur quickly and smoothly, one of the best being when Helena’s bed disintegrates cleverly around her (Oberon and Titania help with the changes, aided by a crew who effectively become Shakespeare’s fairies) and, in an instant, she finds herself in another place. There’s some innovative use of props too; a telephone receiver cable becoming an umbilical cord being one that sticks in the mind.

The first half of the show in particular is not rushed. Rusk and Evans give us a real chance to understand Helena, her life in what seems like a dead-end job, and her dreams. Indeed, it’s not until a good two-thirds the way through that magic fairy dust and one very unwilling and very confused Bottom (Wang Weishuai, 王維帥) puts in an appearance. The lack of depth given to the other characters serves nicely to focus attention where it should be.

Rhys Jarman’s grey, industrial set is lit beautifully moodily by Chris Swain. Shadows are everywhere. A special mention to for Dave Price’s original and evocative score, played live by the excellent Ni Peiwen (倪培雯) on violin.

A marvellous, sumptuous hour of theatre that grabs the attention immediately and doesn’t let go. Unforgettable. Should The Dreamer return, do go.