A Midsummer Night's Dream, RSC at the Barbican Theatre
This is the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that caused the furore earlier this year when it was revealed that a party of schoolchildren left in the middle due to the raunchy nature of the action. In truth, however, although explicit in its treatment of sexuality, this is no more raunchy than most modern productions of this play, which, after all, concerns itself with the nature of love, or more accurately, its close cousin, lust.
Where Michael Boyd's production is impressive is in the portrayal of a world under the spell of fairy magic. The play opens in a snowstorm as the fur-clad court observes Thesus and Hippolyta's summer wedding, a bizarre anomaly until Titania later reveals that the 'spring, summer, chilling autumn, angry winter change their wonted liveries.'
In the opening scene of the Athenian tradesmen, Bottom fires an imaginary bow, and an arrow mysteriously appears. This is a world where magic is never far from the surface. There has long been a close identification between flowers and sexuality (and with the seasons) and there are many floral references in the text of the play. It's no surprise then when flowers play a prominent part in the production. Red roses magically grow out of the stage in the fairy wood and Aidan McArdle's Puck is a cheerful Irish gardener, planting love-in-idleness in the groin of Lysander, and at the end, the fairies cheerfully scatter flowers throughout the sleeping palace.
The acting honours are shared by Nicholas Jones as a proud Oberon and a regal Theseus and by Josette Simon as a sensual Titania and Hippolyta. The Mechanicals are led by Peter Kelly's Quince, playing the part of an am-dram producer to perfection, and Daniel Ryan's Bottom is full of bounce and bluster, convinced that he can play every part - isn't he a character familiar to us all?
This production doesn't have the same dark, Freudian resonance of the RSC's last Midsummer, but it does capture the mysterious nature of this strange play - a heady brew of Greek and old English legend mixed up with some complicated plotting between two couples. For too long, A Midsummer Night's Dream was treated as fairyland froth; it's good to see the RSC continuing its reinvention as a disturbing and sensual piece.