Tuesday, 7 February 2006

A Midsummer Night's Dream - RSC 2006

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Royal Shakespeare Company, at The Novello Theatre, London, UK.

There is a certain level of magic that one expects from a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a longed-for enchantment of the eyes and spirit. This is a play that we want to fall in love with, and Gregory Doran’s production for the RSC is more than worthy of this love.

This vision of the fairy-inhabited forest is sinister and yet alluring. The backdrop is a thicket of branches interwoven into a form reminiscent of a nest or a barricade, signifying somewhere forbidden, somewhere we are not supposed to be. The moon hangs red in the sky and the low lighting both conceals and reveals as fairies slip in and out of this weird structure. Silhouetted fairies laugh and dance, and Oberon appears as a gigantic spirit, as smoke effects, projection, reflection, and shadow-play are put to good use to enhance the eerie-ness of this fairy realm. The fairies themselves are part of the forest, becoming bushes and trees, creating a physical presence for what is not actually there. We see what they want us to see, appearing to the transformed Bottom (Malcolm Storry) as miniatures of themselves, manipulating winged puppets to draw his attention. A puppet is also used for the little changeling boy, an eerily lifelike infant, artfully controlled by the group of fairies.

Oberon (Joe Dixon) and Titania (Amanda Harris) are dark spirits in the best tradition of fairy folklore. They are regal and powerful, sensual and terrifying. We are entranced by them and the cruel games that they play. The group of lesser fairies (Bettrys Jones, Alice Barclay, Peter Bankole, Geoffrey Lumb, Chris McGill) are presented as wild, curious, mocking, and slightly dangerous. To meet them in the forest is to be truly lost. Their costumes are a blend of several styles: goth, punk, and new romantic, as well as ‘traditional’ fairy dress, as though ‘found’ items had been gradually incorporated into their attire. All are beautiful. Not so Puck. Wild, yes, and crazily dangerous, but not beautiful. This version (played by Jonathan Slinger) is a wonderfully half-hearted Puck, bored and slightly gone-to-seed in scruffy vest and trousers. This Puck doesn’t care about causing offence and is all the more entertaining for these qualities.

The contrast between the forest and the city of Athens is extreme. Here we find simple, clear lines of architecture, bright lighting, cool colours. The lovers wear creams and greys, and the anger they feel for their situation is muted and restrained. The authority of Theseus and the dangers presented by the laws of Athens are just as real as those of the fairies, and yet in comparison somehow this seems like the fantasy world, the paler and duller of the two realms.

As the play progresses from city to forest the lovers shift in demeanour, gradually losing their clothes along with their sanity. Sinead Keenan gives us a feisty Hermia, and Caitlin Mottram as Helena strikes a balance between wistful and comic. Oscar Pearce as Demetrius, and Trystan Gravelle as Lysander are fairly interchangeable as the love-mad suitors. The mechanicals, with their working clothes and strong Birmingham accents, take the production to yet another dimension. I warmed slowly to their overblown antics, but by the time they performed their hysterical version of ‘Pyramus and Thisby’ I was captivated by their slightly sad charm.

This sumptuous and enchanting production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as perfect an interpretation as I imagine I will ever see. It will delight Shakespeare buffs, fairy fanciers, and anyone who ever had a dream that no man can tell... 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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