Athens on Sea – a fairy tale fairground – is the setting for Matt Harrison's production of Shakespeare's most fantastical work. Camilla Clarke's set – the ferris wheel, disused waltzer carriage and claw machine – has a run-down faded look about it, not unlike the many British seaside towns that had their holiday destination heydays in the 20th century. It's a concept that is consistently applied through the show, but it begs the question of why? Does this travelling setting have contemporary relevance to the escapist story that tumbles four suitors together and leads them on a merry dance round and round the forest? And more importantly, does it resonate with an audience largely comprised of schoolchildren, on a trip to see the play that they're studying brought to life?
Harrison's vision certainly follows through – light-hearted and farcical, the chintzy metallic helium balloons with cartoon animals on them are the perfect opportunity to emphasise the comedy in this work. Donkey ears, a swordfish, a monkey face – all are made good use of by the cast, who maximise the potential for laughs when they trip over the strings and get tangled in the ribbon.
Kate Kennedy has adapted the well-known storyline into a swift 90 minutes – while all the key elements of Shakespeare's plot are present, her abridged version reduces some of the characters to little more than ancillary roles. Bottom's tryst with Titania is swift and short-lived; the fairies are non-speaking in the main, and Puck's mischievous antics become just a couple of japes. Kennedy centres the plot on the four lovers and the travelling performance group, which makes sense to maximise exposure for the National Youth Theatre REP ensemble and minimise the multi-roles required. But it is a shame that the more magical aspects of this mystical storyline are largely lost.
As for the performances, the cast take their time to warm up and relax into their respective parts. There's a lot of iambic pentameter in the first half of the show, which contradicts the more innovative interpretation of the text. Most at home from the off are Hermia (Julia Kass) and Lysander (Billy Hinchliff), who have a naturalistic tone to their delivery that is more in keeping with the modern setting of this production.
But as A Midsummer Night's Dream progresses, Bottom swiftly takes the reins. This comedy part is a gift in the hands of Jemima Mayala, who balances the classic rhythm of the text with swagger and flair that keeps her performance feeling fresh. Mayala's character fits in most with Harrison's choreography – set to Naomi Hammerton's electro composition, the dance breaks are sometimes welcome additions and other times out of place, shoehorned into the show to cover some clunky scene transitions.
A twist on the classic storyline that proves wholly successful here is the gender-swapped role of Helena (Jamie Foulkes). While Foulkes' delivery takes time to come into its own, the overarching love triangle between Helena, Hermia and Demetrius (Sonny Poon Tip) suddenly has a whole new relevance. Now Demetrius' dilemma is one of discovery, of coming to terms with his own sexuality rather than simply deciding which woman he should devote his affections towards. And when he initially rebuffs Helena's advances, Poon Tip gives a powerful performance of a misogynist showboating to mask feelings of fear, confusion and sexual fluidity. It's modern, moving and frames the play's romantic complexities in a stark new light.
"For never anything can be amiss/ When simpleness and duty tender it". Act five, scene one of A Midsummer Night's Dream includes a line by Theseus that highlights the beauty in simplicity. While a pleasant show, well-performed and cleverly conceived, this production can benefit from such as ‘less is more' approach.