Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
All-male Shakespeare company Propeller has come to Edinburgh with a brace of the Bard’s earliest comedies: the less-performed Comedy of Errors, and the well-known and well-loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a story of love, fairies and chaos.
You may know the Dream, but you probably won’t have seen it quite like this before. Designer Michael Pavelka has given the famous “wood near Athens” a slightly sinister look, and a motif of suspension: the stage monochrome, hung around with sacking-like backcloth and with a row of white chairs stapled perilously close to the ceiling, on which the actors occasionally materialise and crawl on. Fairies in white corsets keep popping up in unexpected places. In a wonderful anachronistic Wizard of Oz reference, we first see Puck (Joseph Chance) as a pair of legs in stripy tights and ruby slippers, waving under a grey box. Titania and Oberon spar from thrones set high up on the walls.
The action is mostly funny and always fast, skipping furiously between scenes which are themselves full of movement. The lovers storm about all over the stage, gesturing and interrupting each other; fairies form sinuous swaying coils; and the Rude Mechanicals huddle and spread themselves with an alacrity that does Peter Quince (David Acton) proud. If ever there’s a dull moment, there isn’t time to notice it.
The quality of the acting amid this frenetic action is variable, mostly good, and with some standout hilarious moments, though there’s an odd mixture of hamming and professionalism. Dominic Gerrard and Will Featherstone are dignified and credible as Theseus and Hippolyta (s/he a huntress spectacularly clad in head-on fox furs). Darrell Brockis and James Tucker command the stage as their fairy parallels Oberon and Titania, while Dan Wheeler steals the show as a self-pitying but sympathetic Helena.Matthew McPherson, on the other hand, plays Hermia like a third form boy who hasn’t got over the hilarity of pretending to be a girl, all screeching, mincing and overdone hand gestures; and Alasdair Craig’s Flute/Thisbe can’t see past his enormous bosoms and blonde wig, in which a lot of the richer comedy of his part gets lost.
It’s a game of two halves, and the first part of the play, strong all round, gets let down somewhat after the interval, largely by the way the company stages (and ruins) Pyramus and Thisbe, the Mechanicals’ infamous play-within-a-play. Call me a purist and a pedant, but Shakespeare’s original gloriously comic lines have lasted for four hundred-odd years and retained their humour. It’s all there already. There’s no need to gild their lily with constant ad-libbing and beating up poor old Snug.
That said, the second half also boasts a fantastic cat-fight scene between the lovers, where the lines get lost only in the audience’s laughter, and the braces-snapping farce between Arthur Wilson’s Demetrius and Richard Pepper’s Lysander almost makes up for the disappointment of the closing scenes with the Mechanicals.
Director Edward Hall gets the most out of a small cast by means of an impressive amount of doubling, managed so slickly that you may not even notice it until they take their bows: Matthew McPherson plays both Hermia and Snug, David Acton teams Egeus with Quince, and so on.
It’s a pacy, surreal, rambunctious production, and an entertaining evening, even if ham acting and too much ad lib do, at times, wake us from the Dream.
Runs until 19 April