Midsummer Night’s Dream (Open Air)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that has undergone a rapid transformation in the last 30 years or so. Where once this was archetypal Regents Park material, all fairy lights and sylvan glades, in most modern productions it has acquired a darker edge, as directors get to grips with latent sexuality in the text and explore the significance of dreaming.

Alan Strachan’s production takes a similar tact, placing the action into the repressed Victorian world, where sexual desires are repressed and where women are seen, but not heard (or at least not listened to).

The opening is very fine indeed – Harry Burton’s Theseus is a bluff-speaking, emotionally stunted army officer, well at ease in a world where women know their place. Hermia has no chance of following her own desire in such a time, when daughters strictly obey their fathers. It’s soon clear that Hippolyta has become Theseus’s bride in a similar way – she has an instant sympathy for Hermia’s plight, as she touchingly gives the unfortunate girl a flower. The alienation between Theseus and Hippolyta is continued when we first encounter Oberon and Titania (the same actors play these roles).

Unfortunately, their arrival is heralded by a Puck (played by Paul Kemp) who seems to feel the need TO SHOUT HIS WORDS and does so throughout the production. A compensation is Nicola Redmond’s beautifully-judged Titania. Disdainful at the outset, she’s transformed into a lusty, ravenous lover when enchanted to fall in love with Paul Bradley’s frantic Bottom – here is one woman whose sexual needs will not be ignored. The lovers, too, make for an appealing bunch, especially Sarah Tansey’s dignified Helena, although Sally Hawkins’ feisty agility gives Tam Williams’ Lysander and Chris Larkin’s loutish, public-schoolboy Demetrius a hard time.

There are some appallingly misjudged sound effects. Every time Puck enacts one of his spells, for instance, there’s a burst of maniacal laughter from the loudspeakers – a cheap gimmick that shouldn’t have got past the drawing board. Even worse is the noise, when Oberon uses the magic flower, of what sounds like a Microsoft software program booting up. And does the appearance of the rude mechanicals really have to be accompanied by jaunty music reminiscent of a second-rate 1950s comedy?

Overall though, this is a fine production of one of Shakespeare’s most endearing plays. While not as dark as some recent productions, it’s a long way from the fey interpretations that used to hold sway. And as night falls over Regent’s Park, who could fail to be captivated in such charming a setting?

Maxwell Cooter