Students' bitter sweet production takes to the stage

A virtually all-female cast takes to the stage this week to perform ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to music lecturer at CIT Cork School of Music about the play
Students' bitter sweet production takes to the stage
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs at the Cork School of Music from March 29 to April 1. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

CIT Cork School of Music lecturer, Johnny Hanrahan, is giving Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream a whole new look with 11 females and one male in the cast.

The actors are in their third year of the four year-long degree in drama and theatre studies and chose the play themselves, as part of a showcase of their work. It just so happened that the class is primarily female.

Johnny says that the virtually all-female cast “throws a fascinating new light on the gender politics of the piece”.

He originally wanted to stage two feminist parodies by Aristophanes. But the students came up with a list of plays that really interested them and felt A Midsummer’s Night Dream would work best for them.

“The students love the play which is about romance and the path of true love. There’s also an other-worldly quality about it. Everything isn’t quite as physical and corporeal as it might be. It’s a dream so the fact that there are girls playing blokes works well. (The sole male is Patrick Lehane who plays Bottom.)

“The play was originally written for a wedding. There are sombre themes in it but it’s very jaunty with a lot of playfulness. The fairy king, Oberon and Queen Titania drive the action along with the servant, Puck, the ultimate trickster who likes to stir things up. The play is quite dizzying in some regards. You kind of wonder who is in love with whom and who has fallen out of love. It’s almost like a mathematical puzzle.”

Johnny has actually cast three Pucks.

“I just felt that Puck is such a changeable being that it would be interesting to have three of him. I wanted to create the sense of the spirit world being a kind of hall of mirrors. The other reason I did it was to give the actors a particular acting challenge. It’s not easy. They move between being a sort of chorus and individuals. Sometimes, there’s only one of them onstage. Sometimes, they appear from every angle, simultaneously. It’s a very enjoyable part of the action. The three actors are physically very different from each other. They are Tara Downes, Sinead Magee and Leah Lennon.”

Johnny, who teaches writing and directing at the CIT Cork School of Music, says that staging a play is a staple of the degree course and part of an ongoing showcase of the students’ talents.

“Essentially, the students are getting the kind of theatre education which former generations in the city didn’t. Before, you had to get out of Cork to train at Trinity or the Gaiety School of Acting. Now, you have UCC and the School of Music providing a particular type of training. The students don’t just do acting. They also study writing, directing and all the technical stuff. It’s a complete apprenticeship in theatre skills. People have gone on to do post graduate degrees in writing and there are graduates who are working very actively and a have a lot of skills such as lighting design and stage management. So there’s a whole community emerging in theatre. Several of them have gone on to form their own little production companies. It’s a hugely practical course that Regina Crowley and John O’Connor (from the CIT School of Music) have established. They don’t operate in an ivory tower.”

The aesthetic of the production is “fundamentally pop art. There is definitely a retro feel about it. It’s a 60s look. However, it’s also very contemporary in terms of other aspects of the aesthetic which is video. It’s not just a single screen. The technology has advanced to a point where you can now put projections all over the place. It helps create an extraordinary dream world. While David Hockney and Andy Warhol aren’t in the same boat artistically, both of these artists are referenced in the design of the production. It’s paired down and slightly geometric.”

But despite the look of the production, Johnny says it is absolutely faithful to the text.

“There’s no effort to make a new play of it. It’s cut down to ninety minutes. That in itself was an interesting process that I did with the students. Everything that was either necessary or particularly beautiful, we kept. Stuff that just seemed to elaborate the plot we cut.

“Contemporary audiences want to move on faster. But I think for the purist, there’s no sense of us doing a hatchet job or changing everything.”

Cormac O’Connor has created the sound design. “That goes hand in hand with the video. There’s a slightly early 60s sound to it but it’s much more complex than that. The only people that are in period costume are The Mechanicals who perform a play within the play. The great thing about the play is that it’s a fantastic ensemble piece. Everybody in the cast has got loads to do. We do everything we can to retain the magic while treating it as a living comic text.”

Johnny says the production is “slightly subversive”, even referencing Donald Trump.

“The gold-plated palace in Athens has a strong relationship to combed-over blond monarchs of our time.”

The sombre themes include the pain of love and the pain of being separated from the loved one.

“There is also self-disgust. Helena has an extraordinary speech where she talks about herself being as ugly as a bear. It’s beautifully done, played by Katie Porter.”

The late Polish political activist and Shakespeare theorist called ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’ the Bard’s bitter Arcadia.

“There’s a bitter-sweet quality to the whole thing. It’s also very charming – and cruel. Shakespeare is very clear that love can be pretty cruel,” says Johnny.

He adds that the play would be a better introduction to Shakespeare for secondary school students than ‘Romeo and Juliet’, “where people kill themselves. ‘Midsummer’s night Dream’ is brilliantly written and deals with young love.” Without a body count.

Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Stack Theatre at the CIT Cork School of Music, Union Quay, from March 29 to April 1. See

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