Gregory Doran’s production (itself a revival of his 2005 show) has finally hit London and it’s easy to see why it has gathered so many plaudits. This is a refreshingly funny take on Dream, a production that has eschewed the Freudian touches and the overt sexuality and has reinvented the Athenian woods as a place of mystery and magic.
Right from the start, the comedy is brought to the fore, when the audience is presented with the comical contrast between Edward Bennett's square and buttoned-up Demetrious Tom Davey's rakish and slightly boho Lysander. Too often, the lovers tend to be bland, almost-cypher like characters but not in this production. Kathryn Drysdale's fiery Hermia is not to be trifled with and she and Natalie Walter’s bespectacled and dull-looking Helena complement Bennett and Davey to make a lively quartet.
Doran's most striking innovation is the use of the fairies as both a type of Greek chorus and as the instruments of chaos. Thus the lovers are lost in the woods thanks to a thicket of underclothes brandished by the fairies while Peter Quince's escape from the wood is hindered by the demolition of his bike. Unusually, Oberon and Titania’s quarrel has not led to a schism in fairyland so we see all the fairies working together to build up the air of menace.
The rude mechanicals play their part too, The Pyramus and Thisbe is funny – with some great business on the words of ‘stone’ and ‘hole’. Joe Dixon's Bottom got most of the laughs but I was also taken by Ryan Gage's Flute, relishing his femininity when playing Thisbe. It’s also nice to hear the Brummie accents rather than the stock rural brogue that we’re so used to hearing.
It’s rare to see a Dream that draws laughs from first scene to the last but Doran has caught all the magic in the text perfectly. It’s taken some time to reach London but with the Donmar’s Twelfth Night down the road, London now has two very funny Shakespeare comedies – when was the last time that happened?
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from May 2008 when this production was appearing in Stratford.
The first glimpse of Francis O'Connor's set for the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream is breathtaking. As the audience files in, a red-tinged moon is reflected on the black perspex floor and matching panels that form the back wall.
Shakespeare's play is constructed as three separate entities that merge at the resolution, each performed with aplomb by Gregory Doran's cast. The lovers are each distinctive: Demetrius (Edward Bennett) is a buttoned-up toff, immaculately dressed in suit and tie; his rival Lysander (Tom Davey) a Birkenstock-wearing student; the object of their desire, Hermia (Kathryn Drysdale), is a superficial socialite; and Helena (Natalie Walter) a bespectacled homebody blinded by her love for Demetrius.
Doran's fairy world mixes uneasily with the real one, yet is curiously beguiling. They move about in a clump, looking like rejects from a 1980s-era Madonna video. The fairies each have puppet dolls of themselves they manipulate, as they manipulate the bodies of the lovers. The forest through which Helena chases Demetrius is the soiled undergarments of Lysander and Demetrius, stolen from their cases.
These fairies rule this Athenian wood while their master and mistress squabble over a changeling boy. Oberon (Peter de Jersey) and Titania (Andrea Harris) have lost control of their kingdom, which has their fairies running amok in the human realm. In fact, the ease with which their minions weave in and out of fairy kingdom and Athens illustrates their absolute lack of power. Puck (Mark Hadfield) emerges from a pile of rubbish on an urban street; the First Fairy (Mariah Gale) gleefully dances around the mechanicals as they assemble for their rehearsal meeting; and the sprites wickedly make Peter Quince's ([Roderick Smith)] bicycle take itself apart while he looks on.
Doran's production is a revival of his 2005 Dream, then performed in the now-destroyed Royal Shakespeare Theatre. His 2008 Brummie mechanicals are literally walking in the footsteps of their forebears, but the recycled gags remain hilarious. The play within the play is a delightful mix of coarse humour and word play.
The transfer from the proscenium arch to the Courtyard's thrust stage also serves the production well. At the finale, Titania and Oberon orchestrate a magical blessing not just of the three couples' marriage beds but of the theatre itself, the fairy kingdom once again in harmony.
- Jami Rogers