Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably one of Shakespeare’s best-known dramas. It was therefore intriguing to see what the all male Propeller company could bring to such a well-loved but well-worn piece.
The plot is intricate, as four distinct groups of characters – the court, the lovers, the artisans, and the fairies – interweave their love, strife, plots and peregrinations to reach a final resolution and blessing. Two sets of lovers find themselves in the woods outside Athens, where they survive the incompetence of fairy magic, the hardships of the woods, and occasional fisticuffs, to end up with the right partner at the end of the night. The loving strife between the king and queen of the fairies adds a supernatural twist to proceedings, and the interface with the crude mechanicals provides the trump card plot twist. The pompous weaver Bottom is turned into a donkey, becoming the paramour of Titania, the bewitched Fairy Queen. Add in the mischievous Puck – Tinkerbell out on parôle – and the natural and supernatural worlds collide in joyous confusion.
The set to encompass this magical-realist realm is sublime simplicity. A stage surrounded by white netting, a few drapes, and with assorted whitewashed chairs slung above the stage to form a parapet or balcony from which to watch the main stage action. The same simplicity extended, unusually, to Propeller’s use of music, which was here restrained and peripheral. And to costume; the basic costume palette comprised a cross between an Edwardian pierrot, and a Clockwork Orange Droog, with cod piece and corset. White face clown make-up completed the masque. Mortal lovers were costumed in a tuxedo mash-up. Sometimes simple works. It did not always here.
There were highlights in this production: Puck recounting the artisan actors shock at Bottom’s transformation, while they re-enact it in slow motion; the cat fight between Helena and Hermia; the finale performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the hilarious attack by Thisbe on the Lion, the Moon, and poor Peter Quince. (Thisbe’s over-inflated bosom almost deserves its own name check.) The stage design was enthralling and there were some excellent effects: the use of hand-held torches as Demetrius and Lysander pursue one another through the woods, teased by Puck; the braces-snapping contest between the male lovers; the subtle changes in lighting as the fairies dance and pop Bottom into the pop-up pagoda – almost the only piece of furniture ever used.
Propeller sometimes take liberties with the standard script, and I notice that they now publish their own adapted playtexts, in acknowledgement. I do not generally mind their gilding of the lily, and I relished the additions to the disorder as the mechanicals perform their play for the gentry. The Wall does not generally get to upstage the action, but this Wall was a structure of some significance, and as the mayhem threatened to demolish him, he could be heard to shriek “You’ll knock the bloody duck off!”. Great stuff.
So many highlights serve to throw into relief some aspects that worked less well. The white-painted faces and similar costumes failed to allow for much differentiation between the male lovers, who became almost inter-changeable, especially as they constantly swapped the object of their affection. Oberon, and to a lesser extent Titania, possessed a dark charm, but little regal authority. This was fine for the more comedic scenes, but took away some of the magic which infuses the play. Similarly, Joseph Chance brought out Puck’s playfulness, but left him very earth-bound.
Propeller rely on great ensemble playing, and it was here in full strength. Their parts allowed for some superb ranting opportunities for Matthew McPherson as Hermia, and especially Dan Wheeler as Helena, and they took the full measure. David Acton, as Quince, was superb in the rôle; he wore corporal’s stripes on his overalls but deserved promotion – probably to Captain Mainwaring. Chris Myles, as Bottom, gave an assured performance, without over-playing the buffoonery. Alasdair Craig was an innocuous Francis Flute, the bellows mender, but was transformed into a fearsome scene-stealing Thisbe.
This is the start of a long tour for Propeller. I am sure, on past performance, they will soon iron out the wrinkles and inject the magic to match the undoubted energy of this production.
Reviewed on: 31st January