A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Erica Whyman’s ambitious production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using amateur actors from fourteen theatre companies all over the country for the mechanicals, and involving several actors who will be known to sections of the audience from TV soap operas and popular drama series, is a joyful affair, a most appropriate celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Set in the 1940s, which Erica Whyman describes as a time of great change, the production also celebrates the optimism of post-war Britain. Gone are the dark edges which have characterised so many recent productions of this play. Never for a moment do we think that Egeus will have his wish of demanding his daughter Hermia’s death. Egeus is very much a subject of Theseus and Theseus does not appear to be a tyrant. Hippolyta does not seem to mind being a trophy in Theseus’s conquest of the Amazons. There is no sense of bestiality in the relationship between Titania and Bottom. Puck is a ‘mischievous sprite’ rather than an agent of harm. Bad things only happen in dreams (such as Hermia’s) and under the influence of magic, the results of which can very easily be reversed.
The four young lovers fall in and out of love, but such is the tenor of the play that we know no real harm is going to come to them. There is a quasi-teenage exuberance and innocence about them, particularly about physically restless Lysander, beautifully played by Jack Holden in a most welcome return to the RSC, and gangly Helena, confidently and effectively played by Laura Riseborough. Puck is wonderful. What a star Lucy Ellinson appears to be! It’s hard to keep your eyes off her wonderful movement and facial expressions – a delight. Unusually the music and musicians are integrated into the playing, acting as fairies with instruments, providing a rare cohesion.
Of necessity for a touring production, the set is minimal. Only a fake grand piano (which serves as Titania’s ‘flowery bed’ and a set of metal stairs are needed on an otherwise bare stage, although these are complemented by some pretty hangings.
Tom Piper’s costumes, too, are rather minimal although they are also very striking. Chu Omambala (Oberon) looks gorgeous in his shirtless white suit as does Ayesha Dharker (Titania) in her red dress. Puck’s androgynous suit is also splendid.
And what of the amateurs? The actors in the two companies involved in the previews – The Bear Pit Theatre from Stratford and the Nonentities from Wyre Forest – were indistinguishable from the professionals.David Mears’s Bottom and Alex Powell’s Flute were as good renditions of their parts as I have seen. Stunning. The audience loved the mechanicals and rightly so. Their performances were truly celebratory, their direction completely professional and delightful.
You have to see it. Make a real treat of it and come and stay at Moss Cottage, too.