In collaboration with acclaimed physical theatre company Gecko, Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre have produced what is quite simply one of the most beautiful Shakespearean adaptations I’ve ever seen. Created last year as part of the British Council’s Shakespeare Lives Programme, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, The Dreamer takes the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as its primary source, with emphasis on the four lovers of the play and one in particular: Helena. Something I’ve always been fascinated by in Dream would be how Helena might deal with the events following the story, particularly being with a husband, Demetrius, who continues to be under the spell of Puck’s love potion and is, therefore, never truly in love with her. This collaboration breathed bittersweet life into that idea in ways I find hard to express. It is thus far the only show at this year’s Fringe to move me to tears.
The narrative drops Helena into a dead-end-job in modern Shanghai, surrounded by two men who lust after her more popular and confident colleague, Hermia. As the eponymous dreamer of the play’s title, Helena sinks into night time visions of love and happiness, at one point quite literally falling through her bed into the netherworld beneath, in one of the show’s most striking images. The director, Rich Rusk, has discussed that he learned about ‘left over women’ as part of the creative process – ‘women in their late 20s who have been branded as such because they are not yet married’ – and it is easy to see how this cultural cruelty filtered into the exploration of Helena: constantly rejected, left behind and misunderstood by her peers.
“the only show at this year’s Fringe to move me to tears”
The Shanghai company were extraordinary throughout and the show has a brittle and haunting lead in the actress playing Helena. Her capacity to shift from intense rage to broken apathy to delirious joy was quite something to behold. The Dreamer also delivered the high level of epic set design, pounding soundscapes and awe-inspiring movement sequences I’ve come to expect from Gecko over the years.
This is the show’s European premiere and there are only a few days left in its run here at the Edinburgh Fringe. The Dreamer is surely one of the hottest tickets in town right now. For me, the mark of brilliant adaptation is one which makes you forget you’re watching one and start seeing it as its own distinct entity. With its sublime treatment of a classic tale, this is one of the best examples I’ve seen of the form.
Pleasance Courtyard, 2nd – 15th August, 13:30
Image: Gecko Theatre Company