Michael Pavelka's all-white set inevitably draws parallels with Peter Brook's classic 1970 production - not only in the starkness of the set but with the appearance of a gallery (in this case made up of piles of chairs) ringing the stage. The white boiler-suited cast start the play in a merry dance, accompanying themselves on harmonicas and percussion. There's a sense of childhood here, the exploration of the joys of dressing up and the sheer love of pretending.
Above all, Hall has recognised that this is a comedy, one of the best in the English language. It seems obvious to state it, but many productions that I've seen seem to have abandoned the idea of making us laugh by concentrating too much on the psychological aspects of the darker sexual moments of the play.
By using an all-male cast, Hall has dispensed with a lot of the sexual tension that most modern productions thrive on. We're always aware that these are actors playing parts - but rather than hinder the play, that awareness adds a new lustre to it. The scene where the four lovers confront each other in the forest is far funnier than most I've seen, precisely because there's less sexuality and more pantomime. Which is not to say that the sexual elements have been removed entirely; Richard Clothier's voluptuous Titania eyeing up the ass-dimensioned penis of Tony Bell's Bottom provokes one of the biggest laughs of the night.
But I've never heard an audience laugh so much at any Midsummer Night's Dream. The Pyramus and Thisbe scene, in particular, is played to the accompaniment of a growing crescendo of guffaws.
There are some superb performances throughout this well-oiled ensemble, but particularly outstanding are Robert Hands' robust Helena, Jonathan McGuiness's Hermia and Simon Scardifield's mischievous Puck. (As the latter two also play, with great hilarity, two of the mechanicals, they engage in some frantic costume-changing.)
This is a great night out; pure simple entertainment. Having concentrated so much on the comedy, Hall has missed out the dark side of the play - truly great productions would incorporate both aspects - but there's a sense of joy about this production that makes the heart sing all the way home.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following review dates from February 2003 and this production's original season at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury.
Despite its Athenian setting, this classic tale of lovers, nobles, fairies and 'rude mechanicals' at play in the woods is quintessentially English. A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's most performed plays, so the challenge is to mint it anew. Too often, this leads to gimmicks for novelty's sake. But director Edward Hall and his all-male Propeller Theatre company have fashioned something truly rich and strange with this in-the-round staging.
From the play's opening scene, as an eerie-sounding clock strikes twelve, Hall's playful, androgynous fairies weave a spell that's constantly fascinating, funny - and dangerously unpredictable. With their white faces and costumes of Victorian underwear, reminiscent of Tenniel's illustrations for Lewis Carroll, they could be dubbed 'midnight's children'. They speak and move as one, conjuring a doll's house palace, sprinting around Michael Pavelka's simple set and alighting on an upper level of linked white bentwood chairs.
The rapport built up over several productions shows in the company's ensemble work. Each actor plays many parts and all are equally effective as the most loveably convincing cast of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' I can remember. They burst on stage to rehearse with a glorious energising song that instantly changes the pace. They're never cod, always real working men.
Each displays abundant individual strengths as well. Tony Bell genuinely inhabits an enthusiastic Bottom, hero-worshipped by the mechanicals, led from behind by Chris Myles' sweetly ineffectual Quince. Jules Werner's gruff Flute comically makes the best of drawing the short straw as Thisbe. As Puck, Simon Scardifield is a gleeful naughty choirboy to Guy William's menacing Oberon, while, as Starveling, Scardifield is all injured dignity when the nobles send up his Moonshine.
Vincent Leigh's Demetrius and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Lysander are well matched by Jonathan McGuiness' doll-like Hermia (a great double with Snug's 'cowardly lion'!) and Robert Hands' Helena. Standing there before us, a slightly balding man dressed in ill-matching female underclothing, it's Hands' consummate natural acting style that makes his lady utterly touching and believable.
Elsewhere, Richard Clothier's muscular androgyny as Titania banishes any thoughts of fey whimsy, especially when she's transfixed to find her lover hung like a donkey indeed. Matt Flynn's noble Theseus and Emilio Doorgasingh's grande-dame Hippolyta are equally physical - the sexual charge when the clock strikes midnight again at the end is palpable as the lovers traipse eagerly to bed, and we go satisfied into the midwinter night.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Newbury's Watermill Theatre)