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A Midsummer Night's Dream at Shakespeare North Playhouse – review

Matthew Dunster's production inaugurates the new theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Nadine Shah as Titania
© Patch Dolan

The creation of the Shakespeare North Playhouse, against all the odds during a global pandemic, is truly an outstanding achievement for all concerned. The fact that it is located in a small northern town, with 400-year-old links to the Elizabethan theatre, makes it all the more remarkable. To be there at the opening night of its inaugural Shakespeare production is something special.

The brutalist architecture of polished concrete and floor-to-ceiling glass is a wonderful contrast with the wooden interior, handcrafted by specialists using techniques that were around at the time of Prescot's original theatre – the first of such purpose-built playhouses to be constructed outside London. But, important as they are, a theatre is less about the surroundings than the people who inhabit them, and those at Shakespeare North are warm and welcoming to a fault, from the cheerful front-of-house staff to the energetic performers on the octagonal stage. What they all want to know is: is their opening show any good?

My suspicion is that they already know the answer. Co-produced with Warrington company Not Too Tame and Newcastle's Northern Stage, where the production will transfer after its run on Merseyside, this Dream is brash, bold and beautiful, with no pious reverence for Shakespeare and plenty of knockabout fun. Like The Mousetrap, there are many things about the show that would be spoiled in a conventional review, and audiences are asked politely not to reveal too much about how the production is shaped and plays out. Naturally, that makes conventional reviewing rather tricky – not least in identifying individual actors and passing comment on their performances.

The Fairies
© Patch Dolan

What I can safely say, however, is that Matthew Dunster's production, co-directed with Not Too Tame's Jimmy Fairhurst, is geared deliberately and shamelessly for a contemporary audience. The mechanicals are thoroughly 21st century, there's some hugely enjoyable audience involvement – not something this audience member says lightly – and British sign language is woven seamlessly into the action. Indeed, some of the most moving moments are completely wordless.

The Playhouse's main stage is named The Cockpit, and in the round it certainly lives up to it. Sumptuously lit by Sally Ferguson using a combination of candles and spots, the floor opens up with a series of traps as a giant hoop rises and falls overhead in Jen McGinley's graceful design. The 12-strong cast use the space intelligently and entertainingly and there's rarely a pause for breath.

Elsewhere, music and sound (Ian Dickinson) play an integral part and, while the Shakespearean poetry and story are sometimes subordinate to the raucous quest for laughs, there's no doubting the success of the company's stated intention to throw a few curveballs and challenge expectations. This is a vibrant, refreshing, working-class Dream aimed squarely at newcomers to Shakespeare – and theatre itself – that will surely stay in the mind of anyone discovering him for the first time. Long may that dream continue.