The Dreamer is the visual spectacle and technical tour-de-force you’d expect from physical theatre company Gecko, but somewhat more difficult to emotionally engage with – for me, at least – than Missing or Institute.
Gecko’s first international collaboration – with performers from Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre – reimagines A Midsummer Night’s Dream in present-day Shanghai. Shakespeare’s story has been married together with 16th century Chinese text The Peony Pavilion, which I must admit I’m not well-versed in, but one assumes focuses on similar themes of passionate, unrequited love and dreaming.
The character of Helena (the Dreamer) becomes the focus of this characteristically slick and fluid 70-minutes: an administrator for a blanket Shanghai corporation who is madly in love with colleague Demetrius – who, of course, has his sights set elsewhere. Helena escapes the monotony of the day job – and agony of her unrequited love – by reading, and letting her imagination take over. She fantasises about meeting Shakespeare’s Fairy Queen and King, messing with the minds and hearts of her colleagues, and so on.
The stagecraft is the star here. Particularly in the context of Edinburgh Fringe (though one imagines they’ve managed to negotiate slightly more than the standard 10-minute get in time), the production values and speed at which every beautiful visual set-piece effortlessly transforms into another is undeniably astounding. The set and lighting design is equally elaborate, slick and ambitious – and, even if one was to solely focus their attention on the precision and rehearsal time required to execute the transitions so seamlessly, it’d be very difficult to get bored.
I do think there’s something missing though, and it frustrates me that I can’t put it down to something entirely tangible. I spent the 70 minutes just feeling slightly more distanced from Helena and this Shanghai world than I would’ve liked. I sit there thinking ‘this is impressive’ but not really ‘this is poignant’ or even necessarily engaging. Perhaps not enough is done to make the world inviting from the off – humour could have been utilised slightly more than it is to feign connection. And perhaps not enough is done to make us really warm to Helena (and thus make us feel her pain when her love remains unrequited).
In sum – The Dreamer is a production that is indisputably exquisite. Aesthetically. But the world it conjures, and the characters that inhabit it, are somewhat less relatable or seductive than those in Missing or Institute – when you cared as much about those elements as you did about the stagecraft and design.