Monday, 22 January 2018

If you go down to the woods today, you might hear a bit of te reo #PopUpGlobe

Pic by Stuff

In Shakespeare's outrageous comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream batshit crazy things happen to serious young things who have escaped the city's strictures for the unfamiliar and faintly dangerous delights of the forest, wherein they are made sport of by those who have born and grew up there: by a race of fairies invisible to the erstwhile city-dwellers whose puckish ways, however, are not.

They, and every receptive audience for the Dream (if the director is doing it right), are always in for a big surprise.

So too, it has been reported, were many of the audience for the Auckland Pop-Up Globe's production over the weekend -- surprised to discover that the fairies, the original inhabitants of the play's strange lands, were represented in this production by two Maori warriors and a wahine speaking in te reo. According to the Herald, who have clearly been simply trawling Facebook to muster controversy where there is none:
Online reviews left about the Pop-up Globe performance said the move was 'disrespectful' and 'bastardising' Shakespeare and confusing for audiences. Other theatre goers have made their equally damning views direct to the venue's management...
One person wrote on social media the use of Te Reo in A Midsummer Night's Dream "spoilt what otherwise was a thoroughly entertaining and professional production." In a Facebook review, another disgruntled theatre goer said the decision to have the fairies speak in Maori meant only two people at his count could understand what was being said.
The reporter does not say how many in total were included in that count, but she is at pains to link "the debate about the use of Te Reo Maori" in the production at the Globe with "the debate about the use of Te Reo Maori" elsewhere which, she says, "has flared several times in recent months ... [including] former National Party leader Don Brash clashing with RNZ's Kim Hill on her Saturday morning show over the public broadcaster's use of Maori greetings on air."

Linking the two "debates" seems to be both unhelpful and disingenuous. Because as every theatre-goer knows, it is possible to destroy a play with errant direction even if you support the director's intentions.

But as everyone leaving the play on Saturday night in tears of laughter could attest, this is not a play that has been destroyed. Far from it. In this setting, and with this directorial choice, the play comes alive.

As it happens, I too was at the show on Saturday night, and I was one of those wiping my eyes of tears when I left (and my Saturday-night-best of blood, but that, dear readers, is another story). And far from being surprised by the speaking of a strange tongue for 20% of the time, I was fully prepared for it -- indeed, I was coming back for a second time having enjoyed the first performance so much. And I will be back again for more before this season ends.

Because, what the reporter fails to point out is one very salient fact: this is a damned fine show! It is truly world class. The performances are stellar, the setting is superb, and the choice to use tangata whenua to represent the forest's native fairy folk is as thematically sound as it is dramatically stunning. Who better to represent the original forest folk than our original forest folk? And that choice being made, why wouldn't you ask them to speak in that original language? If it adds an air of unreality, then that is precisely what the Dream should do!

But there is much of it we can't understand? And so what -- there is much in Shakespeare's own English that is difficult for many to parse, and we don't usually play the Bard with subtitles. And there is much more of Shakespeare's original text that is cut in every production in order to reduce the show time -- a chainsaw being taken to the text that in some cases will see it reduced by as much as half!

But, comes the response, courtesy of the Herald's Facebook trawl, "This [is] silly because the fairies revealed key plot points." And indeed they do -- and apparently the Herald's erstwhile online reviewer is unfamiliar with the art of mime, which these actors speaking te reo use superbly to tell the story. The spells they cast over the various players could not be more clear if they were telegraphed; and if the reasons for their playfulness are not always clear, let me assure you that they are far more so than in many an opera sung in an unfamiliar European tongue. There are enough signposts in this Dream to understand where we are being led, both by mime and by the familiar-enough words of te reo each of us do know that pepper the text.

And as the play's director and Pop-Up Globe founder Miles Gregory explains (the man without whom, it should be remembered, this exciting theatre concept would not even exist),
 having the fairies speak Te Reo was a long-held dream because in Shakespeare's original work the fairies were written as communicating in a language unfamiliar to the other characters. "So to me, having the fairies speak another language enhances the storytelling and provides a fresh and exciting take on a play that is extremely well known."
And so it is, and so it does. That the storytelling is done in such a setting by such consummate performers only adds to the excitement.

Puck (played as a Maori warrior you truly believe could girdle the globe) is outstanding, he steals the show (as every good Puck should); Oberon provides deft support; and if Titania is more statuesque than seductive, she/he comes into her own when seduced herself by Nick Bottom's ass. (If you don't know, then you really must come along and find out!)

For me, the bitching, and the reportage about it, are just so much colourless carping. As an amused Puck says after watching the hilarious knock-down drag-out fight that climaxes Act III,
On Saturday night, that one beautifully-timed word brought the house down.

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