Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Young Vic)

Joe Hill-Gibbins directs a dark interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedy

Joe Hill-Gibbins' take on Shakespeare's most loveable comedy was never likely to feature flowery bowers and glittery fairy dust. This version offers a dark interpretation, set in a thick layer of mud: a gloomy, grubby offering. I've never laughed so little at the play.

But the darkness also sheds light. Lines leap out anew, assumptions about the story are destabilized. I've always thought it's pretty creepy that one of the couples is left drugged-in-love, and the final scene shows up the men as utter berks. But here, the violence that goes on in the wood (not just by men – Titania is sinisterly predatory too) is played not as cute sparring but as bleak emotional abuse. I was astonished by the viciousness with which Lysander treats Hermia, something that – by not playing it for laughs – this production suddenly lays very bare.

You realise there's more arguing than there is romance – and it's less love than zombiefied lust. Don't blame it entirely on the flower: Lysander (John Dagleish) is scarily sexually pushy before it even hits his eyes. And the one-track zeal of his new passion for Helena also shows up the stalkerish nature of her own obsession with Demetrius. Love, here, is dangerous.

Some people are going to see all this as ruining a perfectly sweet play. These shadows may well offend. But Lysander does actually say to Hermia that he "hates" her six times. Hill-Gibbins is only holding the play up in a new way, allowing it to tell a different story.

And isn't that partly why we endlessly return to Shakespeare? Because his works contain such multitudes? Lord knows, I wouldn't want every version of A Midsummer Night's Dream to be as dour as this. But if any play is stuck with a certain idea of how it 'should' be done, it's 'the Dream', so accessible it's often rendered twee. This is the opposite of twee.

Johannes Schutz's design – Glastonbury-levels of churned mud in front of a mirror reflecting the audience – feels at times a help, at others a hindrance. The mirror highlights the various pairings and reversals of the play (Theseus, Hippolyta but also Egeus double with Oberon, Titania and Puck). It also suggests going into the wood is a through-the-looking-glass experience; this is a liminal space, where love, identity and moral codes may vanish, as if by magic.

The mud though. On the one hand, it's quite fun: actors frequently faceplant into it, mud-slinging quarrels are very literal, and watching characters get progressively dirtier matches the wild downward spiral Hill-Gibbins' production takes. The filth continues at court, where the Rude Mechanicals' show – still very funny – spills its bounds. Chaos reigns. But although this final scene effectively shows the lasting damage done by the night of mischief in the woods, the return to Athens surely ought to mark a return to (masculine) order – the mirror even gets blacked out. And yet the Bacchanalia continues…

This bare earth also forms a reminder of Oberon and Titania's quarrel, that has so disrupted the seasons and natural world, that nothing grows. It makes the journey into the wood, at night, convincingly difficult, not skippingly sexy. But there are also moments when it's just quite practically difficult for the actors; you realise you're paying more attention to their trudge than their lines.

The cast is great. Michael Gould's Oberon wields power with a chilling sadism, while the wonderful Anastasia Hille makes for a softly seductive Titania. Leo Bill is a treat as a comic, excitable but also truly grotesque Bottom. The asses outfit he must don is a queasy combination of flesh coloured tights and plastic bottles, like some unsettling Sarah Lucas sculpture made of flesh. Puck, meanwhile, is no airy sprite, but a lumpen, reluctant servant in a bad wig, with Lloyd Hutchinson bringing a dry humour to the part.

Of the lovers, Jemima Rooper takes the biggest journey, from a confident, amusingly indignant Hermia, to one who appears catatonic by the end, uttering Lysander's line "the course of true love never did run smooth" on repeat. In this Dream, that seems like an understatement.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs at the Young Vic until 1 April.

Read our interview with Jemima Rooper