A Midsummer Night's Dream is one those plays that lends itself to any number of interpretations. Bristol Old Vic has teamed with Handspring Puppet Company to bring a whole new dimension to the comedy, where wooden objects hold as much sway as flesh-and-blood actors.
And why not? This is a world inhabited by fairies, where magic flowers transform lives and where three-legged stools can take on a life of their own, so why not a world where planks of wood are weapons, trees, sun rays and the muzzle of hunting dogs.
Tom Morris' production brings everyday objects to life – Puck becomes a creature made up of a garden basket, watering can, fork and saw, voiced by three actors like an ethereal Cerberus.
It's a marvellously inventive approach, a glorious mixture of props, masks and puppets, but in such an assault of the senses, there's always a danger that the text is left behind and the actors are at the mercy of inanimate objects. For example, Morris is not content to plant an ass's head on Bottom but to strap him backwards across a trolley, with appendages on his legs – to signify his ears. It's a grotesque effect but one has to have knowledge of the play to recognise what he was meant to be.
There's a tendency to hammer home the rude puns – no cheek, hole, stone or ass can go unstressed – the actors may as well be using their planks of wood to hammer the point home. It does sometimes feel like Shakespeare interpreted by schoolkids. On the other hand, there are some genuinely powerful moments: Bottom's introduction to the fairies and the closing scene, with the transformation from the mortal world to the domain of the fairies are particularly captivating.
Amidst the puppetry, David Ricardo Pearce and Saskia Portway are an engaging Oberon/Titania (Theseus/Hippolyta) while Militos Yerolemou hits the right tone as Bottom, swaggering around like a small-town bigshot - despite his diminutive stature (there's a good visual gag playing on this).
Bristol Old Vic should be applauded for bringing something new to this much-performed play – not all of it works but it's a fascinating exercise and there are some moments of real magic.