Shakespearean Madness in the Dining Hall
“Are you sure/That we are awake? It seems to me/That yet we sleep, we dream”
– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare
I was tempted to pinch myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming when offered the chance to fly from Townsville to Cannington Mine in mid-September, to review, of all things, a performance by Bell Shakespeare.
A sense of the surreal infused the entire adventure from the moment we boarded a Fokker full of drowsy Monday morning commuters grown immune to the glory of outback Queensland, unfolding like a map below as we approached the mine 200km southeast of Mt Isa. The workers fifo (fly-in, fly-out) every week – it’s their equivalent of a suburban bus ride to work.
The accommodation village is an anomaly with its green sward of football field and neat cabins transposed onto a dusty spinifex plain, surrounded by a working cattle station and low ancient ranges with eroded escarpments.
The performance was held in the Cannington Mine ‘Theatre’ (the old dining hall) with a sparse, but enthusiastic audience of local landholders with a few young children in tow, the mine’s community engagement team, and some other workers sporting orange safety uniform. No-one really knew quite what to expect, even The Players (Bell Shakespeare’s touring troupe), who usually work with schools.
After the obligatory mine induction video, the four young actors, Teresa, Suzanne, Ed and Felix, launched into Midsummer Madness – A Midsummer Night’s Dream compacted, reworked and adapted, with minimal but effective props and costumes deliniating the concurrent narratives within the play.
Designed for a young audience to emphasise the comedy of Shakespeare, The Players were a little freer with the bawdiness in light of the unexpected audience. There was much ado with slapstick, physical theatre, audience interaction, actors in multiple roles, swinging from Shakespearean English to tradie vernacular to schoolie slang.
The re-casting of Bottom and friends as ‘tradies’ allowed for some broad humour and sly asides, while the Helia/Lesander/Helena love triangle was portrayed in a manner timelessly relative to the youthful yearnings and misplaced affections which play out in every generation.
All of The Players contributed strongly to this affable production, although Teresa (variously playing the Narrator, Helena, Puck, and Peter) did a fine job of holding the threads together. Bell Shakespeare develops and workshops these educational adaptations in Sydney, and The Players return at intervals during touring for further support and training. Slick as Midsummer Madness is, it is The Players integral grasp on their material and passion for Shakespeare which allows them to be so adaptable to conditions and varied audiences as the two troupes of four players drive their vans across far flung areas of Australia. (The other group is touring Macbeth Undone.)
So in the end, Bell Shakespeare at Cannington is not such a stretch of the imagination, especially given BHP Billiton’s sponsorship of the iconic theatre Company, and the mine’s (relative) proximity to The Players’ touring schedule, and its commitment to the local community. The value of corporate support to the arts in regional Australia cannot be underestimated, and it is heartening to find the private sector awake to the need for cultural diversity and engagement far beyond the Great Dividing Range.