By Danielle Farrow
A taken-for-granted woman in a repetitive, uninspiring job, in love with someone in love with another (all of them colleagues) and under pressure from her parents, finds solace from her humdrum existence in her reading, while being tormented by nightmares. The book she reads unfolds in live, flowing silhouettes of beautiful Chinese tradition-inspired shadows on wheeled-in screens. Her world is enclosed within a semi-circle of metal framing, with elements of different environments run in by miner-like spirits with forehead lamps, other lighting imaginatively placed within furnishings. From different heights, these mischievous movers, sometimes playing office staff – along with a couple who argue over / through the woman – dance into her life and dreams, and occasionally a light is ‘zipped’ around the stage as the speedy spirit Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
For this struggling modern woman is a version of Shakespeare’s Helena, the warring couple Titania and Oberon, and the other office workers include Demetrius, the object of Helena’s affection, and the mutually-in-love Hermia and Lysander. The screen story is that of The Peony Pavilion, in which a sheltered young lady dies of a broken heart after but dreaming of a lover, and a young scholar falls for her picture after her death, with resurrection bringing the two together – a tale by Shakespeare’s Chinese contemporary, Tang Xianzu. Knowing these stories, though, doesn’t mean you know this production’s ending.
The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, with Gecko, here present a passionate production that glories in witty humour, magnificent movement, inventive scenery and prop-handling and a space-filling, heart-thumping score – core elements of acclaimed physical theatre company Gecko’s work. The names of characters, along with a few key words, stand out within the performers’ language, and more English is not required to tell Helena’s story – this is very clear in the expressive facial and body gestures used, which both pull on the heartstrings and tickle the funny bone.
Performed with flair and dynamism, invigorating design and direction, this production showcases an ensemble work of some power. Before the frantic finish – that holds a dark-edge which might not be fully intended – the driving score and movement hit an unfortunate plateau: while some might continue to be moved here, others have definitely disconnected. Other than this disappointment, SDAC and Gecko’s The Dreamer is a delightfully realised collaboration which takes joy in bringing Helena firmly into a modern world where the mundane is made magical and Shakespeare’s and Xianzu’s relationships still ring with deep and entertaining relevance.