by Laura Kressly
Viewed through a contemporary lens, this can be considered one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays. A woman prisoner forced to marry her conqueror’s leader, a man trying to force his daughter into an arranged marriage, and fairies forcing teenagers and each other to fall in love, are key aspects of the story that can’t be cut and all are framed by comedy. But at Michelle Terry’s gaff, director Sean Holmes deals with the first admirably and embraces the chaos of the latter two in this psychedelic, fever-dream of an interpretation that is colourful, pacey and full of contemporary jokes.
Though there’s no getting away from the creepy, non-consensual drugging that makes characters lust after the first person they lay eyes on, Duke Theseus’ determination to wed his war prisoner Hippolyta is staged admirably. Victoria Elliott as the captured queen is shocked, scared and unable to speak after being delivered bound and gagged to her husband-to-be. This is a great choice that addresses the imperialistic plot line, though the laughter this elicits shows some of the audience fail to comprehend the message.
Aesthetically, the costume design can be described as Carnival/children’s TV/space Elizabethan, with a dash of trad Russian and warrior goddess thrown in for good measure. It’s an absolute mess and looks out of place on the replica stage, but draws on the eclecticism that was likely to be present in Shakespeare’s time, with costumes coming from a variety of sources like wealthy benefactors, and old company stock. Some set dressing adds more brightness to the stage – though more would be welcome – and a marvellously bizarre contraption for the players’ Pyramus and Thisbe performance begs the question, “just how many drugs did they all do in the design meeting?” It’s glorious, absolutely mad, and traditionalists will hate it – so out of stubborn opposition to the ‘pale, male and stale’ approach, I thoroughly approve. One down side is that Oberon’s sun god gown is so massive that he is largely rendered static upstage, a rare moment of stillness that jars with the rest of the production choices.
Also in the spirit of so-called original practice, there are plenty of off-text jokes and gags, current references, and room for the actors to improvise. Holmes goes even further with this by adding sections of text in other languages and queering some of the relationships; Jocelyn Jee Elsen’s Bottom and Victoria Elliott’s Titania gleefully fucking away in a bisexual utopia built from a wheelie bin decked with flowers is a thing of wonder. This pair deserves an entire spin-off play that doesn’t end in Titania’s return to her dour old husband. The ensemble taking turns playing Puck adds some originality and includes moments of clever staging, with the character always clearly signified by a brightly coloured t-shirt and dilly-boppers. Starveling is recruited from the audience so whilst there is scope for this to go wrong, it adds another level to the theme of consent that runs through the play.
The rest of the cast are excellent, as they should be what with Terry’s actor-centred approach. Amanda Wilkin (Helena) really must be cast in everything on stage, forthwith. Her physical expression and comic timing is both hilarious and vulnerable; she and Faith Omole as Hermia make a lovely pair of friends. The mechanicals double as fairies and are also immensely watchable as a group, with individual characters given plenty of space to stand apart from each other as well.
Joyful, filthy, modern and messy – this is a production that will no doubt separate those who like their Shakespeare more reserved from those desperate for fresher takes on these old plays, but this one is fun, vibrant, socially conscious and current, with excellent performances.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through 13 October in London.
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