In a time of broken hearts, when we are re-evaluating our beliefs, our morals and even our society, everything becomes unreal. Life seems chaotic, flashing from situation to situation. We go through the motions of our daily lives: work, sleep, socialising but our minds drift.

Such is the strangely apt world reflected by The Dreamer, part of the Auckland Arts Festival. Starting with a minute's silence acknowledging the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack, its 65 minutes were a blur of motion, a series of arresting images mixed with comedic scenes and moments of mystery, longing and romance.

The show, directed by Rich Rusk, is a collaboration between Gecko Theatre (UK) and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (China). It was first performed in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of the deaths of UK playwright William Shakespeare and Chinese writer Tang Xianzu.

With only 10 performers on stage, this tightly choreographed work is a powerful exposition of physical theatre and dance. The narrative arc alone is challenging enough – it is a mash-up of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Xianzu's The Peony Pavilion and a modern-day office romance where "leftover woman" Helena pines after her co-worker Demetrius, who has a crush on her best friend Hermia.

Advertisement

It helps to know the plot lines of the two older works, but the piece can be enjoyed on its own. As Helena falls deeper into her longing and loneliness, her world increasingly fractures and becomes invaded by mischievous trenchcoat-wearing fairies. Their leader Puck has a rotund, energetic presence reflecting clown characters found in Chinese opera, theatre and TV.

Helena is guided and inspired by Du Liniang, the heroine of The Peony Pavilion, a young woman who pines away for her imaginary lover. But Liniang is a poor guide as she is imprisoned by the walls of societal norms and unrealistic romantic leanings.

The award-winning set is a wonder: a jigsaw continuously assembled and disassembled by the cast. Taking inspiration from European surrealist theatre and Chinese shadowplay, the space exposes the thin veneer of our modern civilisation. A soundtrack of tango nuevo and contemporary electronica, with electric violin performed live by Ni Piewen, both energises and dislocates.

In the aftermath of an event like Christchurch, it is difficult to see anything without this filter colouring our perception. But theatre like The Dreamer provides a permissive space. It is only when Liniang and Helena each regain control of their dreams that their lives can continue, on a new path. And for us, the audience, emerging from the theatre, perhaps we too can find a hopeful way forward.

What: Auckland Arts Festival - The Dreamer
Where & when: The Civic, until Sunday March 24
Reviewed by Renee Liang