The Dreamer, Pleasance Courtyard Edinburgh

Guest Review by Sandra Howell

Believe the Hype- Just Don’t Live the Dream

Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre’s ensemble and Gecko Theatre collaborated to produce and perform a modern play inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a story called The Peony Pavillion by Tang Xianzu, who, according to the publicity, was a contemporary of Shakespeare.
This is a multi-layered story interwoven with different themes and forms of movement and acting. The actors’ performances are very physical, journeying from naturalistic everyday movements and gestures, through mime, including slow -motion, to dance. The dialogue is in a Chinese dialect, despite this, the audience is able to understand what is happening most of the time. This is due to the cast’s skillful acting, especially by the lead character Helena, whose movement, facial expressions and eyes clearly communicated her thoughts and feelings.

It helps to have read or seen Midsummer Night’s Dream to understand The Dreamer. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening, there was shadow play behind a screen, which I assume is based on The Peony Pavilion. However, as soon as the Midsummer Night’s Dream references became evident I had a better idea. As the themes are multi- layered you could perceive the play as just being about Helena, a bored, solitary office worker stuck in Groundhog Day. Helena’s existence slips between her day dreams, nightmares and the reality of her hum drum isolation as an office worker in modern China. She doesn’t know what is real and neither do we, the audience.
This play is darker and more sinister than Midsummer Night’s Dream. The cleverly designed stage set built the scary atmosphere. It had a dark grimy feel and a stripped back industrial look. The set became actors during the nightmare scenes. The bedroom furniture was fixed to wooden pallets, which enabled the actors to lift them and move them around to distort and disorient Helena’s reality during the nightmare sequences.
There were light moments of comedy and romance in the play too. From the nightmare scenario of a flip chart presentation in front of a team of staff going wrong-we’ve all had versions of this anxiety right? It fluidly moved into a romantic dance sequence between Helena and Dimitris. They court each other using dance, which was fun and sweet, but not cloying. We were then returned to the workplace presentation. I loved the small but significant gestures showing Helena’s emotions and the smooth transitions to group performances. During the presentation, Helena caressed Dimitris’ back, at first accidentally, then she can’t believe her luck. We don’t know whether this was a day dream, although she seems to wake up holding his hand.
There is a lot of dialogue in this play, all but a few English phrases are in a Chinese dialect but that doesn’t matter. The actors, the scenery, and music were so good that I and the rest of the audience knew what was happening, most of the time, judging by us all laughing in the same places. The violinist Ni Peiwen built an eerie and haunting atmosphere, the background music track also made the changing mood of the play.
Oberon and Titania were sometimes Helena’s bickering parents. But there was a sinister twist to Oberon and Titania who were depicted as ghosts or spirits, rather than fairies, in the nightmare sequences. The ghost story really haunted Helena, were they nightmares?
There was a lot of comedy in the nightclub/ bar scene with the frenetic dancing of the drug- induced infatuated characters, which then moves easily to another scene, containing clear references to Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania’s transformation after ingesting the love powder had me, and the rest of the audience, laughing out loud.
A great modern play, it had everything: feel good romance, hauntings, day dreams and comedy. Drawing on references from MND there were universal themes: love, jealousy, desire, parental pressures to conform, day dreams, nightmares and the blurring of reality. It also covered some of the problems of a developed industrialised society: the urban isolation of a lone office worker stuck in a dead end job, the competitiveness of office work, parental and societal pressures to marry. The performances were very natural, with each scene fluidly moving to another; solo, to pairs, to groups, through day dreams, comedy, nightmares, and reality. The physical movements from walking to dancing flowed easily too.

The Dreamer is on until 15 August

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