The very first musical ever produced by Bell Shakespeare, Australia’s national Shakespeare company, The Lovers is a sugary sweet pop adaptation of the perennial favourite A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Writer/composer Laura Murphy’s vision promises ‘Love and Pop and Shakespeare’, and it definitely delivers on all three counts. Anything deeper than that is unfortunately lost in the questionable internet references, and unclear direction of the second act.
Despite that, The Lovers starts off strongly, and has so much potential. Murphy does away with the Duke and his wife, the Rude Mechanicals and the problematic Oberon/Titania subplot to focus on young lovers Helena (Natalie Abbott), Hermia (Brittanie Shipway), Demetrius (Blake Appelqvist) and Lysander (Jerrod Smith) getting their wires crossed in the forest. Stellar Perry plays a green-haired, sparkly-crowned and glittering-combat-booted Oberon, who just wants everyone to have their heart ‘flutter til it flies’. Monique Sallé is a cheeky, bogan skip-hop-rapping Puck, who wears tiny leather wings set on a harness. The opening ensemble numbers feature sharp choreography, excellent vocals and a good sense of the silliness of Shakespeare’s Dream.
Marg Horwell’s set features a huge statue of Shakespeare covered in lipstick kisses, a giant red heart on wheels covered in fairy lights and, later, some glittering pink Christmas trees that make up the magic forest. A hilarious highlight is a teddy bear that grows from regular sized to twice the size of Puck throughout Lysander’s attempt to woo Helena. The design is cheeky, fun and awash with various shades of pink love hearts.
Sometimes Horwell’s costumes distract from the performances, with characters constantly changing for reasons that aren’t always clear and wearing large pieces that make it difficult for them to move freely. Oberon’s and Puck’s consistent costuming throughout is a notable exception, appropriately glittery and modern to match the tone of the show.
Murphy’s writing, music and lyrics, at their best, sparkle with emotional complexity and catchy melodies. The onstage band does them justice, with tight direction by Andrew Worboys. Demetrius’s ‘What I Cannot Have’ paints him as a man who struggles to accept love that comes too freely, bringing extra depth to his reasons for rejecting Helena’s advances. Helena’s ‘Chasing My Tail’ is served so well by Abbott, whose soaring vocals bring out the frustration of unrequited love.
The moments when Lysander and Demetrius see Helena after being put under the fairies’ spell (‘Lysander Is In Love’ and ‘Demetrius Is In Love’) show great knowledge of the musical form. Despite the cheap joke in the word ‘bitch’, the Snake’s song ‘Hiss, Hiss, Bitch’ is such an inspired way to bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream into musical territory.
At their weakest, the songs devolve into cringeworthy quips about kids still being ‘DTL’ (down to love) instead of ‘DTF’ (down to f**k), nostalgia for ‘old-fashioned’ love, unnecessary references to famous couples in history, and borderline preachy lessons on learning to love yourself first before loving someone else.
As the musical moves away from the brilliance of its opening, it becomes clearer that it hasn’t quite decided who its audience is. It seems too adult for pop-music-listening 13-year-olds, with very Millennial dating references, but also underestimates an average Australian 20-something’s knowledge of Shakespeare and love. It’s also somewhat restricted from leaping wholeheartedly into unashamedly poppy musical territory by the inclusion of Shakespeare’s original text, and Shaun Rennie’s at times self-conscious direction.
The Lovers reaches for the stars and gets oh-so-close to catching them. It’s love, it’s pop, it’s Shakespeare; and if you can forgive it for losing its way in the forest, at least you’ll have a good, sparkly, pink time doing it.
The Lovers by Laura Murphy
Presented by Bell Shakespeare
Sydney Opera House, NSW
Writer and Composer: Laura Murphy
Director: Shaun Rennie
Music Director: Andrew Worboys
Designer: Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer: Trent Suidgeest
Choreographer: Yvette Lee
Sound Designer: David Bergman
Fight and Intimacy Director: Nigel Poulton
Assistant Director: Miranda Middleton
Music Programmer: Michael Tan
Associate Music Director/Drums: Cypress Bartlett
Band: Konrad Ball, Rex Goh, Amanda Jenkins, Andrew Warboys
Cast: Natalie Abbott, Blake Appelqvist, Stellar Perry, Monique Sallé, Brittanie Shipway, Jerrod Smith
Tickets: from $45
The Lovers will be performed until 20 November 2022