Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Watermill Theatre)

The Watermill Ensemble returns after a run at Wilton’s Music Hall in London

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream
The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Pamela Raith

Artistic director Paul Hart founded the Watermill Ensemble in 2017 and the three years' history that many of the company and creative team share is yielding dividends. Their collaborative way of creating performances – choosing music so vital for these actor/musicians – is so clear that the audience is included right rom the get-go.

So it's welcome back to the dream team after a triumphant tour of the UK and beyond, fresh from playing amidst the stuccoed splendour of Wilton's Music Hall in London. Designer Katy Lias' Victorian theatre, complete with red-ruched satin curtains, fits like a glove back in the versatile cosiness of the Watermill. The top-hatted fairies look entirely at home – there's an elegance to the wild magic created by fast-moving stage pictures, performers and instruments working as one, seamlessly orchestrated by musical director Joey Hickman and movement director Tom Jackson Greaves.

The casual sexism of Theseus and his Athenian court works especially well in this turn-of-the-century setting. Tom Sowinski's machismo revels in recounting his rough wooing of Emma McDonald's Hippolyta – a feminist prototype, her defiant body language as eloquent as her short assertive speeches. Taking their cues from their Duke, the would-be suitors also display a bit of swagger as Billy Postlethwaite's Lysander and Mike Slader's Demetrius make their pitches to Hermia and square up against each other.

All this testosterone is somehow enhanced by the Victorian frock coats and toppers – the tall trio of actors take up a whole lot of stage space. Postlethwaite's excellent Lysander is particularly assertive, equally matched by the smug alpha male that is Slader's Demetrius. These lads may tower over the objects of their affection but Lucy Keirl's Hermia and Robyn Sinclair's Helena are anything but pushovers, even though the unloved Helena's self-deprecating laughter speaks volumes. There's a pleasing suggestion of sisterhood in the glances the girls' exchange with Hippolyta as the ducal couple sweep out.

A magical coup de théâtre is the inspired casting of the whole company as the fairy who meets Puck in the woods. The almost disembodied whispering voices of Titania's retinue seize the chance to interrogate this gopher of their queen's estranged lord, and Molly Chesworth's feisty, resourceful Puck gives as good as she gets. Later she almost makes a rap of her account of apparent success with the love juice; when Oberon angrily puts her right, she dares to square up to her boss, sulkily stalking off to "put a girdle about the earth".

Enhanced by the music of David Gregory's soundscape, and the tattered glamour of Lias' fairy costumes shimmering under Tom White's lighting, the angry encounter of Titania and Oberon is dangerously enchanting. Titania's riff on 'climate change' is frighteningly on-message as the countryside around the theatre and beyond battles with storms and floods. McDonald's defiant, angry Titania is a supernatural extension of her Hippolyta. Jamie Sattethwaite's powerful, sexy Oberon is as attractive as his fairy king is transgressive.

So the relief of tension is a special delight when the mechanicals burst on to the stage, apparently kept in order by Peter Mooney's officious Quince, though the focus is definitely on Victoria Blunt's glorious Bottom – a comic turn the actor is repeating at short notice due to the unfortunate injury of Lauryn Redding. Blunt has built on her own exuberant, swaggering joie de vivre – equally funny as "bully Bottom" pulling focus in rehearsal and as the loved-up "gentlewoman" (as Bottom is pleasingly described by Titania, Blunt is not playing a male weaver) sharing the bed of a now dreamily sensual Fairy Queen.

It's clearly a real joy for the actors doubling as mechanicals. Sattethwaite gets to play skinny, moaning Starveling, who in turn gets to play Moonshine in the triumphant idiocy that is Pyramus and Thisbe here. Carrying a duck standing in for his dog makes for extra fun when Slader's bereaved Thisbe bemoans her lost "dainty duck" of a lover. Slader manages to make his Flute especially weedy – a contrast to his muscular Demetrius – and Sowinski's Snout brilliantly sends up his macho Theseus by playing Wall, with the chink through which Pyramus and Thisbe seek to kiss inconveniently and uncomfortably situated between his legs.

The tapestry of music, all chosen, played and sung by the whole company is another special joy. Sam Cooke's "Cupid", Laura Mvula's "Sing to the Moon" and Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" are perfectly placed to enhance the mood and underline the action; Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon" gloriously echoes the blue-lit hoop of a moon spun by Oberon.

The audience, which included a fair few young newcomers to Shakespeare, were clearly enchanted. The more this ensemble works together, the more satisfying and the richer their work becomes.