As ever, the first movement of Shakespeare's comedy takes a while to crank into gear. At least, in this first production of Michael Grandage's new season at Sheffield, while you're waiting for it to do so - during the set up in the Palace of Theseus, where we hear the first grating cries of Hermia's (Lisa Ellis) despair of the harsh Athenian law preventing her from being with her true love Lysander (Ben Turner) - we can at least take in Christopher Oram's design.
But for the stage level seating, this could be Stratford. Grandage, utilising to full effect an almost totally black canvas, opens up the play to the expected high production values, for a magical interpretation.
Grainy yet luminous lighting projects the cast from this backdrop with no shadows at all. Typically, the audience should not be prepared for the appearance of fairies, and Grandage's lurch suddenly into view from the murk of off-stage with the full burst of colour and orchestration, and yet manage to lurk thereafter, like liminal tricksters in the half-light.
These are not your averagely benign fairies. They replace the monochrome of the humans with startling technicolour, and are led by a blue Puck, played by Dylan Brown, casting devilishly amorous spells on Samantha Spiro's fairy queen Titania, as well as Demetrius (Orlando Wells), who is made to fall for Helena (Nancy Carroll) along with Lysander, leaving poor old Hermia once again wretched with grief, much to the titillation of this audience.
A charismatic Oberon (and Theseus), Ray Fearon grandly oversees the confusion, but this is really where the play takes off and the comedy comes into its own with passionate, rather than the sometimes perfunctory performances of a less confident cast.
Bottom is played here with the buffoonery that audiences have come to expect, but Lee Boardman nevertheless makes him a hugely likeable character, with and without this impressively comical donkey's head, building up to the play (within the play) for the duke Theseus' wedding. It is the most anticipated scene in any production, and this is no exception.
A crescendo of laughter ends a beautifully played, blissfully funny Dream, and dare I say it, even without a famous face, perhaps an even better Shakespeare staging than last year's Tempest?
- Dawn Jessop