Developed by the University of Leeds and the University of International Business and Economics in China, this double bill of plays is inspired by Shakespeare and Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of their deaths, the students from both universities have created these works with emphasis on the theme of dreaming. While A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming is a fun and playful piece, Dreaming Under the Southern Bough lacks the magical qualities of Xianzu’s play Nanke Ji which it is based on.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, young couple Hermia and Lysander take some time off University to retreat to Sophora Nest Hotel. When they arrive, they are greeted by three playful spirits who welcome their visit. The couple are followed by their friends Helena and Demetrius. Regardless of Lysander’s relationship status, Helena is in love with him, and despite this, Demetrius is hopelessly devoted to her. In order to satisfy their interest in these mortal beings, the spirits put a spell on Hermia and Helena, and the two fall in love with Demetrius, leading to hilariously compromising situations.
This light-hearted adaptation directed by Li Jun emphasises comedic stereotypes and physical humour. Demetrius is performed superbly by Sun Bingchang and stands out from the other characters with his exaggerated, geeky nature, which adds further comical effect to Hermia and Helena’s obsessions with him. The only uncomfortable elements of the piece are the sudden performances of rap. With no other elements of this style of music present in the play, the rapping is jarring and also very awkward. Aside from that however, by focusing entirely on the young lovers in the play and drawing on teenage rom-com tropes, Jun has created a delightfully youthful adaptation.
The second play of the double bill, directed by Steve Ansell, follows Chenyu (George Clifford), a young officer who is struggling with the memories he has of being on the front lines and losing his fellow officers. After an encounter with a spiritual woman (Cao Xinyi), Chenyu goes on an enlightening journey, where he marries Princess Yaofang (Milly Stell), encounters war again and learns to be a better man.
Performed straight after A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the more spiritual and serious nature of Dreaming Under the Southern Bough is a welcome tone. At first, the play seems interesting, as it explores affects of post traumatic stress disorder on those in the military. However, this idea isn’t developed further, nor are any other concepts in the play. Things are alluded to, like spirituality and enlightenment, but it isn’t explored in depth. The quick time lapses in the performance means the action moves too quickly, not allowing enough time for some of the themes to progress. Barely any emphasis is made about Chenyu’s metamorphosis into an ant, and he is hardly surprised by what is happening to him. When he finally wakes up from the dream, he is a transformed man, but Clifford’s lack of character development in his performance makes the change in him hard to believe. On this occasion, Dreaming Under the Southern Bough needs more work to turn it into a coherent and engaging piece of work.
A Midsummer Night’s DREAMING Under the Southern Bough will touring in China between 14th – 28th September.