Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Trevor Nunn
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
In 1957 an Ipswich teenager directed his first play at the High Street Exhibition Gallery in the Town. Hamlet was perhaps an ambitious debut but, given that the young director was destined to become the youngest Artistic Director of The RSC, not surprising. Over the following 59 years, Trevor Nunn has directed every one of Shakespeare’s plays, except one. He may have left A Midsummer Night’s Dream until last, but his return to Ipswich to complete the canon is well worth the wait.
The Dream is often seen as a piece of light and frothy fun, performed probably more than any other of The Bard’s works. In Nunn’s revelatory staging though it seems,fresh and new. Nunn’s directorial work on his previous 37 Shakespeare plays pays dividends, his knowledge of the work and passion evident as he sets the piece in 1930s Raj India. It is a compelling setting, a time where the two tiers of English Empire and colonial India began to collide, when white British visitors fell in love with local Indian women, when traditions and customs were often seen as nothing more than entertainment for the British rulers.
It also, surprisingly, makes sense of The Dream’s text. while opening in Ipswich on Midsummer’s Day in late June, the only date reference in the text refers to May. As Nunn discovers, the hottest point of Summer in India is, in fact, May. There are other clues in the text, Titania’s obsession with an ‘Indian Boy’, that in this staging seems manifestly real. The Indian tradition of spirits also fits well, making the two worlds of spirits and mortals satisfyingly real.
Of course a concept does not make a play, and deft though Nunn’s direction is, he has assembled a cast that clearly know their craft. There is a strong focus on text here, and while sometimes that can come across in productions as dusty and academic, here the verse is spoken with a real freshness and passion. It’s a freshness that imbibes the production, a constant shifting of movement, thought and mood to keep the audience entranced.
Nunn has assembled a large company, bolstered by local children as the fairy chorus and it is a seemless ensemble. Matt Rawle and Fiona Hampton in the dual roles of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania make impressive leaders, Hampton’s Fairy Queen in particular a majestic force of nature fuelled with passion.
In fact, the women in this production come off much the strongest. Neerja Naik’s Hermia and Imogen Daines’ Helena more than a match for Harry Lister Smith and Assad Zaman’s slightly wet behind the ears Lysander and Demetrius. Daines’ Helena in particular is a beautifully constructed character – a Martini fuelled firebrand determined to escape from the shadow of, in her eyes, the more attractive Hermia. It’s a performance pitched perfectly, imbibed with just enough venom and comic timing to make for compulsive viewing.
For the Mechanicals, Nunn’s concept sees them as local tradesman, and the six work beautifully. The play within a play is cleverly realised, comic without loosing concept, while Kulvinder Ghir’s Bottom is suitable scene stealing.
A magical play needs a magical setting and New Wolsey regular Libby Watson has excelled herself with a design that takes the breath away. From Colonial Indian arches to a truly enchanted forest, Watson’s staging thrusts the audience totally into 1930s India in a triumph of design aiding concept.
If there’s one small fault, it is that for a production with so much live, vigour and engagement, the musical elements are recorded. For a venue such as the New Wolsey, who have built a reputation for actor musicians, it seems a somewhat sterile choice.
It is though a minor quibble and one that does little to dent the sheer enjoyment of such a masterly play. Sir Trevor may have left A Midsummer Night’s Dream to last, but it is a masterpiece to complete his directorial canon on.
Runs until July 9 2016 | Image: Mike Kwasniak