Hoping to emulate the stratospheric success of War Horse, their previous collaboration, Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris and Cape Town's Handspring Puppet Company make magic together again, in a visually stunning new interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Blending live actors, puppets and keenly choreographed movement that breathes life into everyday inanimate objects, BOV’s forests of Athens are a mystical place indeed. Fairies roam free making mischief, star crossed lovers vie to win their suitor’s hand, and ‘rude’ mechanicals rehearse their theatrical tributes for the upcoming marriage of the Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon Queen, Hippolyta.
In a production crammed full with sensory delights, Vicki Mortimer’s striking set, comprising a vast wooden skeleton, in close collaboration with Philip Gladwell’s lighting, commands the stage, yet somehow without dominating. Tom Morris again exploits every inch of the Old Vic’s enormous stage, directing a performance full of extremes of movement and action, physical comedy and pathos.
Adrian Kohler and Handspring’s award-winning design skills are fully exercised in a range of puppets and animated ‘entities’, from hand held articulated miniature representations of the central characters, to huge god-like masks and limbs, representing Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies. Used to underline the narrative in part, and to conjure other-worldly imagery in others, the technique works best in the beautifully crafted set pieces with Oberon and Titania (played in human form by David Ricardo Pearce and Saskia Portway – doubling also as Theseus and Hippolyta), where the entire cast move together with a variety of wooden planks and blocks to create variously crashing waves, swaying trees, a pack of hungry hounds, and everything in-between.
The mischievous sprite, Puck, is ingeniously conjured from a ragbag of seemingly disconnected objects; a blow-torch, a saw, a wicker basket all go to make up this most complex of little characters as he scampers around the stage. This is executed with such good humour and imagination that his personality shines through every bit as vividly as the human characters around him.
Where the mix of live actor and puppet does not work quite so well is with the four lovers at the centre of the story. Lysander (played by Alex Felton), Hermia (Akiya Henry), Demetrius (Kyle Lima) and Helena (Naomi Cranston) each carry a miniature version of themselves and intermittently act through their puppet rather than directly to each other. Innovative certainly, and it does provide some nice touches along the way, but this is a bit too gimmicky for me, and the performances feel somewhat muted until the actors are able to cast aside their puppet selves and really let rip. Once unencumbered, there is some cracking interplay between the characters, and the girls are especially fine – Akiya’s extra-ordinarily feisty Hermia being a real delight.
Still, there have been many excellent productions of “The Dream” in the past, with many fine dramatic performances, and this production does set out to do something different. This unique variation, if not necessarily doing the actors any favours, does at least bring a whole new dimension to the tale, and each rings every ounce of drama and comedy out of the script when freed up to do so.
Elsewhere amongst the human cast, the heroic Miltos Yerolemou is magnificent, and a site to behold as Nick Bottom, most especially during his transformation into an Ass at the hand of Puck. Surely no performer has ever had to suffer so for the sake of his art? His quite literal interpretation is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression, if not scar for life. Fellow “mechanicals” Peter Quince (Colin Michael Carmichael), Flute (Fionn Gill), Starveling (Jon Trenchard), Snout (David Emmings) and Snug (Saikat Ahamed) do a great job injecting nonsense into the proceedings, and get some real belly laughs, with a knock-out presentation of their Pyramus and Thisbe.
Maybe a little too modern, and the comedy a little broad, for some tastes, but this is proper theatre. Thrilling, shocking, mesmerising.