In 1960s Hollywood Robin P. Goodfellow is directing his latest blockbuster for Athens Films, the subject Cleopatra. The atmosphere is pleasingly intense and manic, if rather reminiscent of the earlier world of Singin’ in the Rain. A projection of the film’s credits establishes the milieu and the characters and, when the crew breaks, the stars announce their marriage (as stars playing Cleopatra tend to) and Egeus, the producer, rushes in to complain about his daughter Hermia’s involvement with Lysander.
The idea of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Hollywood is not immediately appealing, but Natalie Abrahami’s production for Headlong Theatre has the inestimable virtue of being thought through to create a convincing new world. Even the refusal to standardise accents leads to a superb delivery of Egeus’ complaint like an irate machine-gun by David Shaw-Parker in hectoring Americanese.
Abrahami’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is ingenious, inventive and very much cut: to 10 actors and marginally less than the “two hours traffic of our stage” that Shakespeare promised in Romeo and Juliet. Her scattergun approach hits the target often enough to keep most of the audience entertained.
The fairy scenes are truncated, the named characters virtually disappear, but the camp fairies in their 3D glasses prove great fun, the setting of “Philomel with melody” to the Everly Brothers a real inspiration. The abbreviation of the Mechanicals scenes is less welcome, with Robin Starveling left on the cutting room floor and the final Pyramus and Thisbe performed with half forces. A tour de force of doubling by Peter Quince (Shaw-Parker again) is entertaining, the original much more so, and the Burton-Taylor parody of Christopher Logan and Michael Dylan as the tragic couple is too exaggerated, though enormously popular with the audience. For all that Logan is an interesting Bottom, probably the prissiest as well as the slimmest I have seen, with all the necessary vanity.
The young lovers lack nothing in energy, but their scenes are too frantic, making up in decibels what they lose in stage time. However, Justin Avoth and Emily Joyce establish convincing relationships as Theseus/Hippolyta and Oberon/Titania, with good verse speaking, too. And then there is Sandy Grierson’s Robin Goodfellow, the taciturn pipe-smoking director with a semi-penetrable Bronx accent, who is gradually transformed into Puck, a farouche figure with tie round his head and rolled up trousers, plus a delightfully offhand way with magic. As with so much of this production, not everything he does works, but it’s a striking performance.