REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Shaklespeare Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.

Royal Shakespeare Company
Matthew Baynton (Bottom) and Sirine Saba (Titania). Photo: Pamela Raith (C) RSC

A Midsummer’s Night Dream
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
4 Stars
BOOK TICKETS

FAIRYTALE AS FESTIVAL

“The lunatic, the lover and the poet” are all served in any Midsummer Night’s dream.  Here the first two get most traction,  the poetry least (until Puck’s last farewell). It’s a trippy,  psychedelic ’60s teenage dreamworld that director Eleanor Rhode conceives: far from leafy tradition but highly entertaining.  A mass of round paper lanterns hang high overhead the whole vast auditorium,  a brief flash of old TV-screen test cards hits us at the start, and the forest magic is a thing of voices from every direction, lights and flashes and colours,  hovering bright pinpricks and voices creating Cobweb, Peaseblossom and the rest of Titania’s entourage.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ryan Hutton (Lysander) and Dawn Sievewright (Hermia). Photo: Pamela Raith (C) RSC

John Bulleid adds illusions  – understated but striking when they occur  – to Lucy Osborne’s bare design.   But beyond that,  the production’s power is its sense of youthfulness (a good few RSC debutants),  expressed with constant liveliness in the movement across a big empty stage: the mortal teenagers, fighting and loving and quarrelling,  are set against both the initial business-suit blandness of Theseus’ court and then the eerie ancient authority of Oberon, Titania and their exasperated intern errand boy Puck. Bally Gill’s Oberon,  mutated from the authoritarian Theseus to a scruffy military-jacketed glam rocker, is particularly memorable in creating the fairy king’s odd otherworldly goodwill:   the prank on Titania (what is he but a prototype drink-spiker?) is oddly mellowed as he hangs about invisible to the mortals:  watching, pitying, interfering, and learning.  His reconciliation with Sirine Saba’s dignified queen is unusually touching.

Royal Shakespeare Company
Bally Gill as Oberon. Photo: Pamela Raith (C) RSC

We should speak particularly of Puck: two indispositions in the cast mean that on press night, of all nights, the understudy Premi Tamang took over the wild green wig and scampering wit, and was remarkable.  It says a great deal for the meticulous level of RSC full-cast rehearsal that she does it as if seasoned by a long run: signalling wild flashes, shivers of light and once a shower of ball-pond spheres with casual accuracy and zipping through several very intensely choreographed and remarkably vigorous fight-and-confusion scenes with two pairs of young lovers.  She never puts a foot wrong:  an exit round of applause after the wildest of those scenes was well-earned.

It all feels youthful: three of the lovers are on debut seasons here, Dawn Sievewright’s Hermia at first not totally easy with the verse but splendid in the emotional line of her puzzled rejection and resentment,  and Boadicea Ricketts stunningly energetic as Helena. The brawl between them,  with the men struggling to restrain them is pure Coronation Street classic,  right up to an eye scratching fury ending with both trying to swam up a ladder, the “modesty and maiden shame” in the text getting laughs.  Its conclusion, with Puck and Oberon zap-freezing them and chasing them off in all directions and got a wild round of applause.

A Midsummers Night's Dream
Ryan Hutton as Lysander. Photo: Pamela Raith (C)RSC

And the Rude Mechanicals? Splendidly silly.  Four of the six, including Matthew Baynton’s Bottom and Helen Monks turning Quince into every am-dram matron,  are also on debut RSC seasons:  Rhode has clearly cast about for unrestrained comic talent. Baynton (even without his independently expressive twitching asses’ ears) is a joy, everybody’s most-annoying drama-school diva.  A lanky shape, he milks his death by the tomb in what one can only suspect to be Shakespeare parodying his own Romeo in the previous year’s play.  But a special huzza to Emily Cundick as Snout,  whose deadpan, determined discomfort in the role of Wall is a joy.  It’s the first time that I remember the concept of the “chink” or “cranny’ that the lovers kiss through being quite so uncomfortable for the poor battlement.

Oh, and one of the pleasures of oft-repeated classic plays is noticing something for the first time, off the back of topical news.  It had never occurred to me before that what Peter Quince as leader of the Mechanicals is doing,  in those anxious prologues preventing the lion and the stabbing worrying the ladies,  is inventing ‘trigger warnings’ four hundred years before Ralph Fiennes and the rest got so annoyed by them.  Nothing new under the sun. All in all, three very happy hours to remember.

Runs to 30 march

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