The State Theatre Company finish their 2015 season by letting their rubber chickens out with The Popular Mechanicals. The mix of tricky wordplay and bawdy slapstick in the show reminds us that theatre, even kind-of-Shakespearean theatre, should just be silly sometimes. After all, in his heyday wasn’t Shakespeare a bit of a lewd lad himself?
The Popular Mechanicals is like theatrical fan-fiction; it imagines an untold story within Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, making answers to questions that most of us never considered: what happened to the Mechanicals, the troupe preparing to perform at the upcoming royal wedding, when their most enthusiastic player was turned into a donkey? Did they have a backup plan? A replacement? Playwrights Keith Robinson and Tony Taylor answer each of these questions, while also raising many, many more, most notably, “What are they going to do with all those rubber chickens?”
The show, which involves a mix of dialogue, song and dance, instrumental work and puppetry, is deceptively complex, but the cast of six take the challenges in their stride and seem to have a heck of a time doing it. The performances were evenly matched, from Amber McMahon’s lascivious Snug the Joiner to Charles Mayer who, in playing two over-the-top characters in one play (Nick Bottom and “professional” actor oldie) pulls off some nigh-impossible quick changes. Lori Bell and Julie Forsyth play Tom Snout and Robin Starveling, respectively, with certainty and good-humour, and Tim Overton’s Francis Flute is so bumbling and nervous the audience just wants to hug him (even when he’s vomiting, and that’s saying something). Rory Walker holds the group together expertly as “straight man” Peter Quince.
The set and costume clash purposefully and absurdly, which just adds to the absurdity of the whole experience. Men in pantaloons dialling each other on a rotary phone would be confusing in most other performances, but in The Popular Mechanicals the audience quickly accepts that it’s easier, and more fun, to just go with the flow. As befits the group of amateur, mediocre Mechanicals, their set is nothing fancy – a small stage, a refreshment table, and some made-with-love-but-not-so-much-with-talent props for the thespians’ upcoming royal performance. As with the performance, the design and costumes were simple-but-eccentric – from giant, two-dimensional moons to show-stoppingly puffy pantaloons.
One would expect The Popular Mechanicals to be a little vulgar for some tastes, but Friday’s audience certainly didn’t seem to think so, demanding curtain call after curtain call and laughing like hyenas. You might need to check your more discerning tastes at the door, but once you do, this production is a hilarious ride. A hilarious, gassy, ride.
*Paige Mulholland is a volunteer at the Adelaide Festival Centre.