I caught Christopher Luscombe's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Open Air Theatre last night. It's a mixed bag, but the overriding quality is that it IS funny is all the right places - very funny indeed, in fact (in contrast to Tim Supple's ludicrously overpraised poly-Asian nonsense) and that alone should be a draw. The text is also very well delivered, with great attention to diction, rhythm and nuance.
To start with the positives: Ian Talbot dusts off his famous Bottom (what an image) to fabulous effect. He is hysterically funny, and Chris Emmett as Quince - and all the other Mechanicals, in fact - are ideal comic foils. This is one of the best Pyramus & Thisbes I've seen (and I've seen a few) and - wonder of wonders - there isn't a donkey-dingle-dangle in sight. But what ears... Mark Meadows and Sarah Woodward (de latter wid a bad cowd in de dose...?) have courtly bearing both vocally and physically as Theseus/Oberon and as Hippolyta/Titania, and the four lovers are vividly differentiated - particularly Sam Alexander's Lysander and Hattie Ladbury's galumphing Helena, who is Joyce Grenfell to the life.
But there's no getting away from the downsides, most of which involve half-baked Concepts. First of all, for some unaccountable reason the cast has been built round a company of actor-musicians; yet after a dodgily played and utterly superfluous overture we never again see any of the clarinets (which belong to Puck, Theseus and Lysander), nor Helena's violin, nor many other of the listed instruments. Admittedly, the Mechanicals wheel out their accordion/euphonium etc. from time to time, and the fairies all play pan pipes and whistles, but the rest? All very odd. I can't help thinking that the actor-musician concept is best left to John Doyle.
Then there is the Uranian bit. Christopher Luscombe is not the first director to introduce a homo-erotic relationship between Oberon and Puck, but at least his predecessors had had the courage of their convictions. Luscombe's barely coherent programme note points out that the Victorians were fascinated by Parnassian ideals, but then moves quite randomly to homosexuality in ancient Greece before making an puzzling jump-cut to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas... honestly, it made my head spin - and that was before the show started. And how does all that relate to what happens onstage? Well, the evening's single set is a mock-Greek amphitheatre; however, it is peopled not by Greeks but by Victorians (Geddit?). Puck, when he apears, is a languid, epicene youth who flirts lazily with other languid, epicene fairies... until the production moves on and that whole subtheme is jettisoned like the actor-musicians' instruments. He has a cuddle with Oberon from time to time, but it's only lip service (as it were).
I could go on, about both the good and the bad, but you get the drift. Don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed the evening. But it could have been so much more if it had been properly thought through. - Job
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