Matthew Lunn reviews William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream now playing at The Globe, London.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
3 July 2019
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, a timeless farce with a bit of magic thrown in for good measure. His litmus test for success was the response of his theatre-goers, and it is oft-quoted how he’d have been aghast at his plays being studied in depth. With this test in mind, this production is an undoubted success, and it is rare to see an audience having such a great time, even on a press night (I whooped on at least one occasion).
The first thing that strikes you is the psychedelic colour scheme, a cacophony of yellows and pinks and greens which, coupled with regular musical interludes, create a carnival atmosphere. In the first instance, it felt like the production was trying too hard. The image of an obviously kidnapped Hippolyta (Victoria Elliott) being greeted by a Theseus (Peter Bourke) bedecked in pink dictatorial garb left me feeling slightly cold, and when the four lovers stepped out in alternating blacks and whites for some reason – the trousers always opposing their tops – I feared that all subtlety would be lost. Yet these opening scenes are among the driest in Shakespeare’s comic canon. When the Rude Mechanicals enter, with Bottom (a commanding performance by Jocelyn Jee Esien) unashamedly hogging the stage, the production began to find its voice.
It is quite unrepentantly silly; from Oberon (also Bourke) claiming “I am invisible” whilst dressed like some sort of bloated sea creature, to the use of an audience member as ‘Starveling’ (which has a fantastic payoff in the final scenes), the production steadily gluts us for laughs. It is something of a sugar rush, and a great example of the value of unsubtlety. Nevertheless, the fact that the layered performances of the four lovers led to the most satisfying comic dialogues is cause for reflection. The subtleties of Hermia’s (Faith Omole) and Helena’s (Amanda Wilkin) loves and righteous angers – achieved through two excellent performances – beautifully complimented Lysander’s (Ekow Quartey) ostentatious wooing of the former and Demetrius’s (Ciaran O’Brien) horror of the latter, culminating in a gloriously realised confrontation after Puck has worked his magic. For all the value of unsubtlety, these contrasting scenes exemplified its limits.
Whilst the production’s overall effect is nicely achieved, a number of touches didn’t quite work for me. The cast rotating as Puck – sometimes with each line – was intriguing without offering insight, and did not fully exploit the comic opportunities it afforded. There is also a fair amount of additional, modern text woven into the script, which generally worked well with the Rude Mechanicals (and especially Bottom) whilst seeming out of place when spoken by the lovers. This may be partly a matter of taste – two of my favourite performances were Billy Seymour’s Flute and Victoria Elliott’s Titania, who deliver classical interpretations of their characters. Nevertheless, there were times where the beauty and humour of the script were overshadowed by the pageantry of the production to an almost undeniable degree. In many ways Puck’s final speech being decimated by a brilliantly choreographed set piece exemplifies the great strengths and nagging flaws of the production – a thrilling show that stands on its merits, but sacrifices meaning for entertainment.