Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Andy Barrow
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Oddsocks Productions continues its quest to ‘tell good stories in a fun interactive way’ with their latest offering, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While they typically perform outdoors with a colourful array of larger-than-life characters, on this occasion they are resident in the Belgrade Theatre’s less formal B2 studio space, but they don’t let this stifle their exuberance: the hallmarks of an Oddsocks performance are still very much present with plenty of physical clowning, the destruction of the fourth wall (cast members mingle with the audience before both halves and one audience member is pressed into service as the wall in the rude mechanicals’ play-within-a-play) and the use of snatches of contemporary music as punctuation as we gather breath for the next madcap scene. It’s difficult to shake off the notion that this is how most folk in Shakespeare’s time would have come across his work, presented by strolling players with plenty of interaction and topical references to boot.
The plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is complex and fanciful. Theseus, Duke of Athens, is due to marry Hipployta, queen of the Amazons. Hermia is promised by her father to Demetrius, but actually loves Lysander; Helena worships Demetrius but is rebuffed at every turn; and the king and queen of the fairies play pranks on mortals and on one another leading to plenty of confusion until all is straightened out. And, of course, there’s the rude mechanicals, provided for further comic relief as they strive to perform at the wedding feast.
The set is sturdy and well-designed on two levels to allow the action to move between the forest and palace easily as well as providing opportunities for actors to demonstrate considerable athletic prowess as they move between the levels. Lighting, on the other hand, is more basic, reflecting the fact that the show would normally be played outdoors in mainly natural lighting.
Director Andy Barrow brings out the playfulness of the characters maintaining a brisk pace to proceedings. However, one doesn’t watch an Oddsocks performance for subtlety and nuance – these characters are loud, brash and caricaturish. That certainly works well in the outdoor environment, but the production loses none of its joyous exuberance when translated indoors.
Barrow himself plays Oberon, King of the Fairies and rude mechanical Bottom – assisted by costume designer Vanessa Anderson who presents Bottom as a stereotypical builder complete with beer belly and builder’s bum, while Oberon is blessed with a prodigious six-pack. Barrow fills the stage with his presence whenever he appears in either guise being loud and gruff in equal measure. Alice Merivale brings us a no-nonsense Hermia and a wonderfully mischievous Puck, servant to Oberon whose error leads to many of the evening’s twists and turns. Asha Cornelia-Cluer does a fine job as the initially awkward and later distressed Helena happy to be with Demetrius even when spurned but baffled when, under the influence of the mysterious plant juice, Demetrius and Lysander become enamoured of her. Her Titania is majestic and playful. Alex Wadham is suitably oleaginous as Demetrius and Peter Hoggart’s Lysander is lovely to watch in his open naïvety. The sequence when both seek to woo Helena under the potion’s influence and come to blows is truly a joy to watch. Christopher Smart brings a fine officiousness to Peter Quince. The doubling of characters is used to fine comic effect, for example, when Puck and Hermia are both required onstage at once with the sleeping Hermia represented by her wellington boots. All the cast double up to provide the music for the songs used within the show.
Overall, a brilliantly joyous night out and a smashing introduction to Shakespeare and one of his best-loved and most-performed plays from an assured and talented cast. The time is gone in the twinkling of an eye as the audience leaves with broad smiles without exception.
Runs Until 20 June 2019 and on tour | Image: Oddsocks Theatre