Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Dominic Dromgoole
This one is a troubled, but engaging, Dream. The shadows created by an interesting interpretation of the text by Dominic Dromgoole and the team are never quite pierced by shafts of lightness. In a play dominated by forest groves and fairy magic that’s quite something. A somewhat menacing puck, a clear line on consent in relationships, and a primal feel to the fairy courts give a literal, almost realistic air – educational and thought provoking, even if not crashingly enjoyable. The translation to film adds little – it makes one question the value of close ups to tell a story in a production and play that should rely on an audience having a view that shows everything in context with scene and fellow players.
The two main stories, of the fairies and the loving couples as well as the local workmen gathered together to practice a play for the royal wedding night bring a lot of humour as well as their deeper message. Both interrupted by the machinations of Puck (a menacing but hypnotic performance from Matthew Tennyson) the lovers get lost in a forest, switching affections and fighting bitterly while one actor is turned into an ass and captured by fairy queen Titania to be her lover. All comes right again, and we’re treated to the full play the men have been working on as all couples canoodle in the front row.
The relationships between these couples are the most interesting aspect of the piece – where love is set at a low value compared to property rights. The words have always been there in the text, where men squabble over the right to a woman’s life. Other productions focus on the magic, the fun of Puck and Bottom and the fairy world and interpret the words describing the realities of businesslike marriage depicted in a flirtatious, romantic way. Here, a more literal reading of the text comes out. Theseus’ claim to Hippolyta that he “woo’d thee with my sword, And won thy love“ shows a prize not consent, and Titania herself shows a lack of regard for true consent with Bottom when stoney-faced darkness descends on her as she discovers her passion for him – “Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.” It’s a fascinating presentation that should add an interesting resonance to modern viewers.
Starting the play with a tense and wordless dance where it becomes clear there’s real tension between Theseus and Hippolyta (who bucks against her marriage) sets the tone of antagonism, conflict and hazard that carries through the whole work. The fairy court’s attendants with obscured faces in quite scary masks, the growls and grunts when Oberon performs his magic, Puck’s creepiness, and the slightly discordant music contribute to an air of threat that hangs over everything. With these shadows covering the production nothing really stands out – John Light as Oberon has powerful moments as the animalistic king, and Michelle Terry as Titania and Hippolyta is a fresh mix of vulnerability and steel. Pearce Quigley as Bottom gets the most laughs of all, but it feels these are from the lungs not the belly – sometimes more polite than anything.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream can drag a little in general – especially with the extra play included in full. This version, once setting the note of conflict and consent, doesn’t change. It feels emotionally flat for most of it, and extending it with the “tedious brief scene” at the end really doesn’t help. Where it’s strong, it’s really strong, but those moments even out through the whole play to make it just good, not great.
Available here until 28 June 2020