Line dancing, mobile phones, afro wigs and the sounds of Billy Ray Cyrus singing "Achy Breaky Heart" are not things that you usually associate with the plays of William Shakespeare. But these are just some of the delights contained in Lucy Bailey's modern take on the Bard's classic tale of love and its labours.
Okay, so the idea of updating a classic for a modern audience is nothing new. But this dazzling production, as part of the Royal Exchange's 25th anniversary season, feels exceedingly fresh and new. From the start, it grabs hold of your senses and sends them into overdrive. Surely, few others have re-imagined the bard with such panache, energy and jaw-dropping insight.
When the play opens with a scene reminiscent of Pulp Fiction - complete with suits, shades and long overcoats - you momentarily fear that Bailey's production could end up as a poorly executed experiment that will have traditionalist theatre patrons running for the exits. But as each word is uttered against a backdrop of visual excellence, you're left gasping at the sheer cheek of the piece. I say this because what shouldn't work on paper does. Cross the imagination of Baz Luhrmann and the garish colours his films embrace with the knockabout comedy of the Three Stooges and you'll get a sense for what's on offer here.
Bailey's vision of this Dream - reinforced by Rae Smith's atmospheric set featuring wild undergrowth, puddles of murky water and a luminously flower-laden bed for Titania - melds so seamlessly with the original text that you're happy to buy into the notion that this isn't going to be your traditional 'paint by numbers' English A Level adaptation. Consequently, you can just sit back and enjoy one of the world's greatest romantic comedies.
Amongst the cast, itís hard to single out individual performances from the strong ensemble cast although Robin Laing's Puck, Fenella Woolgar's Helena and Tom Hodgkins' Bottom all have the audience smiling with delight at their excellent comic timing. Everyone though rises to the occasion magnificently.
The Royal Exchange audience clearly embraces this play, and I defy anyone not to surrender to its charm. Purists may balk at the post modernism on display but most will rejoice and go back for more of this production that never stops confounding your expectations.
- Glenn Meads