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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oxford)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Director Zoe Seaton returns to Shakespeare’s much-performed play for the fourth time and to Headington Park, scene of her last triumphant production. Ever seeking inventive challenges, she directs a promenade production with a male Titania.

The experience of walking between designer Tamsin Cuthbert’s enchanting settings is part of the magic. There’s real magic and illusion too, thanks to Seaton’s renewed partnership with illusionist Paul McEneaney. The magical ‘Love-in-Idleness’ is a fire flower flashing between Patrick O’Reilly’s mercurial Puck and Chris Porter’s sexy, commanding Oberon. And Titania’s fairies are tiny twinkling points of light, seeming to manifest themselves at will around their mistress.

Husky-voiced Richard Neale makes an extraordinarily exotic, sultry Titania, with almost alien glittering make-up. Their fairy majesties stalk the twilight glades on stilts, or play on trapeze-height swings, towering over mortals and lesser fairies alike. Their sense of otherness is enhanced by stunning floating robes in every shade of green and aqua, shimmering over the stilts and blending with the natural colours of the surrounding woods.

Puck has no stilts but he’s scarcely earthbound as he bounds around and materialises in the proverbial puff of smoke. Wittily, he’s provided with a ladder, colour-coded with his black red-trimmed garb, to climb to conversation level with Oberon. In Seaton’s sparky reworking, he opens the play with ‘I am that merry wanderer of the night’ and instantly unites cast and audience, ready to share ‘merry wanderings’.

In this company of just eight performers, Puck is the only actor not doubling roles. The four lovers each play a mechanical too and Richard Kidd’s good-natured, ebullient Bottom starts as Hermia’s stern father, Egeus.

The speed with which the quartet of sparky young lovers morphs into awkward bumbling mechanics is magical in itself. Andrew Hodges’ suitably pompous Demetrius doubles well with his pedantic Quince. Pete Ashmore’s Lysander, fuelled equally by romance and testosterone, contrasts cleverly with his gangling Flute. Anna Stranack transforms from feisty Hermia into slow-witted Snug as much with body language as costume. And Hannah Summer’s wonderfully game and gawky Helena makes a very different but equally game Snout.

The sheer physicality of the production gives it terrific energy. The lovers fling themselves from branches and roll across the grass in their ‘fond chase’. Bottom’s transformation into ass gives him front legs to use to great effect, as well as ears and tail. And in this tricky outdoor setting, every word is clear, thanks to well-trained vocal power and projection.

Only the mechanicals’ play does not quite live up to expectations. Trying too hard to please the crowd makes it perhaps too coarse to be as deliriously funny as in Seaton’s last production. But this peripatetic enchanted evening is highly recommended.

-Judi Herman


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