Any director tackling A Midsummer Night's Dream has to decide what sort of play it is: a deeply dark study of sexuality or a broad rustic comedy. Over the past few years, the RSC has cornered the market in psychological explorations of our sexual impulses. Regent’s Park artistic director, Ian Talbot, knows his audience and there’s about as much chance of there being anything to offend schoolchildren as there is as finding Cliff Richard in a brothel.
But this year’s Open Air Dream isn’t quite the traditional fairy fantasy to delight the picnickers. There are no fey and winsome fairies here, but rather dirt-smeared, shaven-headed punks, revelling in mischief. In particular, we can see how Mark Hilton’s rough, hyperactive Yorkshire-accented Puck is so widely regarded as a “knavish sprite” as he trips up Quince and looks delighted at the mayhem he’s caused.
If a production aims to draw out the humour, it’s essential that the Rude Mechanicals are funny. Here is a definite plus; you get a real sense of companionship between them, as if they know each other’s quirks and foibles. The standout performance is Christopher Godwin’s harassed Quince, eager to play the stage director but hopelessly afflicted by stage fright when before the court.
It was a bold move to cast Russ Abbot, in his first-ever Shakespearean role, as Bottom. On the whole, it works. While the ‘Bottom’s Dream’ speech sounds more like the recitation of a shopping list than an exposition of wonder, as you’d expect from this veteran funnyman, the comedy is better handled. And the Pyramus and Thisbe play is excellently done. There’s also a strong Theseus from Terence Wilton, an army man through and through, with a nice line in barrack-room humour.
The young lovers are too often a weak point in any Dream, but the ones on offer here are more believable. I especially like Annette McLaughlin’s love-struck Helena. When she says to Demetrius “Your virtue is my privilege”, it sounds more like a sexual plea than an assertion of her belief in his decency.
Sophie Bould’s Hermia is more feisty than usual, although Jordan Frieda’s Lysander seems to imagine that he’s shouting the instructions on a storm-tossed trawler than addressing his lover. Nor am I much impressed by Keith Dunphy and Lauren Ward as Oberon and Titania. There’s little evidence of the sexual passion that lies latent at the start of the play and their reconciliation seems lukewarm as a result.
However, there are lovely touches elsewhere in Talbot’s production – for example, Snug’s eagerness to hand out business cards when he addresses the Athenian court and Quince’s handling of the hopeless Snout’s attempts to play Thisbe.
This is a good production for those who like their Dreams funny and captivating. While some connoisseurs of the play may prefer the humour tempered with more darkness, there’s no denying that this is an entertaining evening for all.
- Maxwell Cooter