A Midsummer Night's Dream (Homeground, Manchester)
Filter's productions opens the purpose-built outdoor space
You wait a year to sit inside a theatre again, then one of your first visits back is outdoors. The new HOMEground space swaps rows of plush seats in grand auditoriums for clusters of outdoor tables in a converted wasteland. It could hardly be more appropriate, then, for Shakespeare's play about transformation and imagination. So it proves in the slight but charming revival of Sean Holmes' and Ferdy Roberts' 2019 production, reimagined specially for this site's reopening.
Ed Gaughan's effervescent Quince welcomes us like a warm-up comedian, assembling his actors for the Duke and Duchess' wedding performance, although lateral flow test routines are better left for the real world than escapist theatre. We then follow the story of resolving unrequited love and mismatched lovers, crossing paths with forest sprites who make attaining happy domestic harmony seem an impossible dream.
The theme of illusion is shown through the production's abundant playful inventiveness. The actors and central band (plenty of musical fun from London Snorkelling Team) innovate with the basic set's blank canvas, with a nimble, rough-and-ready ingenuity that bittersweetly recalls Kneehigh's work. All of Tom Haines and Chris Branch's sound effects are created live, the slightest bumps along the smallest instruments amplified out into a soundscape of chirping crickets. Theatre in its purest form, these moments are especially atmospheric outdoors.
While Filter Theatre's production creates this magic, it neglects the play's. Titania and Oberon's relationship, for example, is effectively sidelined so they become incidental characters whose interference with the human lovers lacks the driving context of their own feuding. Yet it devotes far too much of its 100-minute runtime to Quince's metaplay, becoming not so much a play within a play, as a play instead of the play. This emphasis only exposes how jarring Shakespeare's jostling between all these narratives is.
Rather than streamlining the narrative for the production's family packaging, the heavy editing generates a frantic pace, the cast rushing through the little that remains. In the absence of set, Shakespeare's imagery and descriptive language are especially important, yet monologues compete with distractions. Titania's seduction of Bottom is muffled beneath cooing and wolf-whistling, while Oberon's "wild thyme blows" speech is accompanied by hip thrusting on "ere the first cock crow".
The wild and raucous energy translates into chaotic pantomime frivolity, from food fights and pepper spray, to Harry Jardine's exaggeration of Oberon's petulance into a puerile immaturity reflecting his superhero costume. At its best, however, the two human couples show how they're more of an ass than Bottom, debasing their civility as they asburdly fight over each other. Leah Walker's Hermia and David Judge's Lysander echo each other's bitter sibilants and mirror body language, bending over to spit their retorts onto the ground.
Perhaps most delightful of all is the rounding sense of enchantment at the ending. Titania bids Bottom to sleep as night descends around us with the setting sun. Soon after, Ferdy Roberts' Puck delivers his closing speech as a stage manager clearing up stray costumes and props, resetting the stage for the story and magic to be shared again. The dreaming's over: theatre's awoken, it's finally back.