A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Eleanor Rhode

Eleanor Rhode’s new production of Shakespeare’s beloved comedyexplodes onto the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage in a riot of colour and noise, and that’s just the opening seconds. A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis a play well-known for its magical elements – its fairy characters, spells, and illusions – but never has a production seemed to conjure actual magic onstage. The weaving together of video projection (Nina Dunn), lighting (Matt Daw), and stage illusion (John Bulleid) works seamlessly to create moments that have the audience gasping in delight. The decision to have the fairies Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed as lights darting around the stage, with the actors providing voiceover, is inspired, adding to the otherworldly feel. Lucy Osbourne’s set design is simple but gorgeously effective – the vast black expanse of the RST stage is brought instantly to life as colours spark and shoot around and through papery lanterns suspended above the stage, through which fairy voices reverberate and sing.

Matthew Baynton, ofHorrible HistoriesandGhostsfame, receives top billing in the role of Bottom, and he is fantastic in the role. Dressed in a sharp suit with a haircut straight from the mod era, Baynton’s performance strikes the perfect balance; of the overbearing amateur actor who wants to take everyone else’s roles, and endearing as the wide-eyed, bewildered object of Titania’s affections. Helen Monks (of Upstart Crowfame) makes her RSC debut in the role of Rita Quince (a fun spin on the character’s original name of Peter) and gives a wonderful performance as the troupe’s exasperated director, in a very fitting ‘high school drama/arts teacher’ style costume, complete with pencils in her hair. The rest of the play’s ‘Rude Mechanicals’ – Snout (Emily Cundick), Starveling (Tom Xander), Flute (Mitesh Soni) and Snug (Laurie Jamieson) are a hilarious ensemble, and each comes squarely into their own during the final ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play-within-a-play – the laughter of the press night audience so loud it almost took the roof off!

Bally Gill and Sirine Saba make a hugely enjoyable pairing as Theseus and Hippolyta. Gill’s Theseus is nervous and utterly unsure of himself in the presence of his soon-to-be-wife, who watches him continuously trip over himself with the perfect amount of aloof disdain. The two actors also double as Oberon and Titania. While Saba’s Titania feels distinct from her human counterpart, the lines between Gill’s Theseus and Oberon are not so sharply drawn. His Oberon appears intimidated by his Queen, rather than the dangerous fairy King whose quarrel with his wife is so serious that it is having a catastrophic effect on the natural world. We see one flash of anger from him in the play’s second half – directed at Puck – which lands strongly, so it is a shame we only see it once.

The four lovers comprise an extremely strong ensemble, full of energy, they complement each other very well. Ryan Hutton’s Lysander is very funny, and his performance really excels in the moments of physical comedy. Nicholas Armfield as Demetrius is more serious than Hutton’s Lysander, driven by a sense of his sense of duty to Hermia’s father. Dawn Sievewright is a whip-smart Hermia, and her confrontation with Boadicea Ricketts’ Helena in the second half is incredibly fun to watch as the two women spit venom at each other. Ricketts’ Helena is proud and petulant throughout, which, whilst an interesting change, does jar somewhat, as we don’t see the full extent of Helena’s heartbreak over Demetrius’ betrayal, and it cheapens moments of sympathy as these are often played for laughs.

The production’s standout performance is that of Premi Tamang as Puck in a truly star-making turn (replacing an indisposed Rosie Sheehy on press night). Puck’s supernatural, mischievous nature is immediately clear the moment we first glimpse her in Starveling’s Tailor shop, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, before the stage is engulfed in mist and we are plunged into the domain of fairyland. Her sullen, sarcastic sparring with Oberon is hugely enjoyable as she lounges up a stage ladder, leg dangling, disrespectful and insouciant. But the scene where Puck leads the four lovers on a final mad chase around the forest before setting things right is a true highlight. An exhilarating setpiece driven by Will Gregory’s thumping music, it is choreographed to perfection by Annie-Lunnette-Deakin-Foster and culminates in an explosion of coloured balls dropping from the ceiling, and the four lovers plummeting beneath the stage in a feat of illusion that takes one’s breath away.

This is a spectacular return to form for the RSC, doing what they do best – showcasing the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and storytelling whilst combining them with (literal) magic, music, and merriment, to conjure up aDream which will stand the test of time as one of their most bonkers, and brilliant, best. A joy from start to finish, and an absolute must-see.

Runs until 30 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

An explosion of colour, chaos and joy

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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