A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In Joe Hill-Gibbins’ re-imagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long gone are the delightful fairies and light-hearted romance you might expect of a traditional production. Abridged into a taut two hours, it leads to no happy ending but a world in disarray where fairy misrule has triumphed and the earthly lovers are traumatised by their ordeal in the forest.
With a full-height mirror on the back wall, the most immediately striking feature of this production is the mud-covered floor, reminiscent of a music festival in the country before the rains. Used to much muckier effect in Robert Lepage’s 1992 National Theatre production, this muddy canvas is more incidental, suggesting that the wilder world of the woods is ever-present even in the Athenian court scenes that bookend the play.
The dark notes of Shakespeare’s text are emphasised in the opening scenes where Egeus, backed by Athens’ duke Theseus, attempts to force his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, a man she does not love, with threats of death or forcing her to become a nun. Her plan to give up everything and elope with her true love Lysander is jeopardised by her best friend Helena, who tips off Demetrius whom she is in love with.
As the four young people enter the forest and fall victim to fairy magic, underlying jealousies and violence erupt into angry arguments and fighting as they shove each other to the ground and scrap in the mud. You particularly feel the distress of Hermia, played by Jemima Rooper, whose lover has suddenly spurned her for her best friend, leaving her broken and almost speechless even after order has supposedly been returned. With Anna Madeley as Helena, John Dagleish as Lysander and Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Demetrius, the four characters seem destined for further grief even after their swift marriages on their return to court.
Anger and discord are just as rife in the fairy world where Michael Gould switches from Theseus to Oberon and Lloyd Hutchinson transforms from a bullying Egeus to a comically phlegmatic Puck. Anastasia Hille is a dignified Hippolyta, stepping across the mud in heels, and gloriously undignified as Titania, rolling about in the mud with the donkey-headed Bottom, played to great comic effect by Leo Bill.
Bottom and the other mechanicals provide much-needed laughter, especially in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final scene, almost distracting from the prostrate lovers watching sightlessly on the sidelines. Led by Matthew Steer as Peter Quince, they are responsible for most of the humour left in this version of Shakespeare’s comedy, from Douggie McMeekin as a shy Snug to Aaron Heffernan as the upstaging extrovert Francis Flute. Atmospheric eeriness is added by the only other fairy on stage, played by Melanie Pappenheim with crystal-clear coloratura singing, arranged by Harvey Brough, which reminds us of the other-worldly wildness that lies beneath.
With few props alongside the mud, it has been designed by Johannes Schütz, with the cast in modern dress devised by Michaela Barth. The show presents some inventive new ideas and insights into the much-performed play as you might expect from a director who filled the Young Vic stage with inflatable sex dolls for Measure for Measure. With some of the humour lost to the darker tone, this is a solid production that at times lacks energy but is filled with flashes of brilliance.
Running to April 1, 2017.