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Auckland Theatre Company brings Shakespeare's playful comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream into the present day. Dionne Christian reports

In a magical forest, a powerful fairy king and queen are at war and nothing is quite as it seems. If you are going to see Auckland Theatre Company's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, expect the unexpected.

Directors Colin McColl and Ben Crowder have stripped back the text so the story has been cut to 90 minutes, with no distracting intermission. There is no woodland glade on the Maidment's centre stage, the fairies aren't frolicking in costumes your tween-aged daughter might wear to a birthday party, and the "mechanicals" - the human characters - have contemporary jobs and ambitions.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has already been revealed: septuagenarian Raymond Hawthorne plays the mischievous goblin Puck in Shakespeare's romantic comedy. Modern audiences might be more used to seeing Puck portrayed as a juvenile prankster; after all, he unleashes the comedy by casting a playful spell which mixes up the fairy characters' love interests.


But Hawthorne, one of our most accomplished actors and directors, is nothing if not spritely. With an impish twinkle in his eye, it's not difficult to imagine him as a roguishly wicked little goblin. Crowder says he was cast because he has the right sort of charm and energy - and there are no instructions that say Puck must be played by a youth. Indeed, he is sometimes described as a wise knave and wisdom implies a degree of maturity and experience. ATC artistic director McColl says it has become increasingly common for Puck to be played by the doyen of a theatre company and Hawthorne is certainly that.

The man himself says he nearly had a heart attack when Crowder and McColl approached him about playing Puck. He was keen to portray Quince, one of the six craftsmen who stage a play for the nobles Theseus and Hippolyta at their wedding, but the role went to Rima Te Wiata.

"So I talked with Colin and Ben and I thought their approach sounded interesting but it still took my mind quite a time to get used to the idea," says Hawthorne, who played King Oberon in a Rada production of the comedy and has directed it three times. "It's nice to come into a production where you have nothing to do with the concept, the responsibility of which you can leave to others, while you get on with doing your thing."

Rather than a cynical and malicious spirit, Hawthorne sees Puck as a rogue who likes the fun that comes with creating chaos. He'll play Puck as a PG Wodehouse-style manservant to the younger King Oberon, one who is always in control of his master but lets his supposed superior think otherwise.

Hawthorne says it is exciting to work with such a large cast - 18 actors, including a musician - of all ages and backgrounds. The production reunites him with Andrew Grainger, the British actor who arrived in New Zealand in 2006, and has much to thank Hawthorne for.

Back in England, Grainger had established himself as a regular on TV shows like The Bill, Holby City, Heartland and Casualty. But he wasn't feeling fulfilled by the work so when his Kiwi wife announced she was pregnant, they decided to head to New Zealand.

"It was pretty unnerving," he says. "My wife was 30 weeks pregnant and I didn't know anybody here at all. I arrived with a decent CV but of course I worried about getting work and making a living."

Film and TV roles came quickly, but Grainger hankered to do some theatre. He'd trained as a musical theatre actor and celebrated his 21st birthday performing at London's Prince of Wales Theatre in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

In 2009 he got his wish when Hawthorne was directing Oliver! for ATC and looking far and wide to find an actor to play Mr Bumble, who runs the children's workhouse.

"I'd spent months trying to find someone suitable and then in walked Andy," recalls Hawthorne.

"He hadn't even opened his mouth, but I thought, 'finally, I've found Mr Bumble' and then he sang and I was even surer he would be perfect."

Grainger says getting the role was a great boost for his career in New Zealand; he credits it as the turning point which has since seen him appear in productions as diverse as the comedy Le Sud (he played the French prime minister), dramas like August: Osage County, Mary Stuart, That Face and 1000 Hills as well as musicals Assassins and Poor Boy. He narrated the children's show The Twits last year and appeared in the big budget show Calendar Girls.

"I guess I'm the right age, the right size and I can sing."

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Grainger plays Bottom whose hubristic nature sees him fall victim to Puck's machinations. Originally a weaver, in ATC's rendition Bottom is a lowly kitchen-hand and part of the acting troupe performing for the nobility. The talentless Bottom wants the lead role, which amuses Puck so much he gives Bottom an ass' head and casts a spell that sees the fairy queen Titania fall in love with him.

He says New Zealand theatre is more collaborative than in Britain; people are willing to go out on a limb and help each other a lot more, with an exciting willingness to try something new.

That's certainly what Crowder and McColl are aiming for with their re-telling of AMND.

Crowder says the production will transport audiences into a "meta world". "There will be lots of movement; it will be fast with lots of entries and exits. Staging a play is like going on a voyage of discovery. You ask what you can bring to the piece which is fresh while staying true to the story. Ultimately, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a romantic comedy. I think Shakespeare was certainly in a good mood when he wrote it and we want to reflect that."

A Midsummer Night's Dream also features Peter Daube, Laurel Devenie, Alison Bruce, Brooke Williams, Stuart Devenie, Jono Kenyon, Brett O'Gorman, Rob Mokaraka, Goretti Chadwick, Josh McKenzie, Xavier Horan, Italia Hunt, Aisea Aholelei Latu, Arlo Gibson and musician Brett Adams.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Where and when: Maidment Theatre, May 3-26