ComedyLondonReviewShakespeareShakespeare 400

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: William Shakespeare (adapted by Simon Evans)
Director: Simon Evans
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Another week, anotherDream– it seems productions of Shakespeare’s fairy fantasy are everywhere these days, from the RSC and the Globe to BBC1. Now we have a stripped down, fringe version at Southwark Playhouse. And even though it makes do with only seven actors, taking ample time to make fun of its own double and tripling of roles, it’s just possible that this is the best one of the lot.

Starting with the cast assembled around a rehearsal table, appropriating many of the lines from the Mechanicals’ first appearance as they discuss their production’s shortcomings, it’s clear that this will be a very post-modern interpretation. Speaking directly to the audience, they tell us that a normal production ofA Midsummer Night’s Dreamrequires 17 actors, so there will have to be compromises. And so there are: not only in the shortage of actors, but with no set and the plywood of the traverse stage illuminated by the unchanging, uniform harshness of a lighting rig at full blast.

But is this not more like the conditions that original audiences would be used to, forced to rely on their own imaginations to differentiate between the daylight of Theseus’ court and the subsequent nighttime adventures in the forest around Athens? Even then, it matters little when the play itself gets under way, once the roles have been doled out and Shakespeare’s original Act I.Editing helps keep the acting roles down – Hippolyta and Philostrate are both entirely absent, and Egeus’ petition of Theseus with respect to his daughter’s love life is delivered by letter. But otherwise, these opening scenes are played straight, with Ludovic Hughes’ Theseus coming across as a beneficent ruler who will aid lovers Lysander and Hermia escape his city’s life-threatening traditions.

Despite the appropriation of their best lines for the opening conceit, the Mechanicals are not forgotten. Any opportunity for actors to poke fun at their profession’s propensity for pomposity tend to be grasped with relish, and so it is here: Freddie Fox, already a dashing Lysander (albeit one who is slimy enough that Suzie Preece’s Hermia would do well to avoid him altogether) re-emerges as Nick Bottom, making him an over-earnest, pretentious snob of an actor, pressing every button for the increasingly anxious Freddie Hutchins’ Flute, Thisbe to Bottom’s Pyramus.

But it is when Bottom is enchanted by Puck (a charming Melanie Fullbrook, playing well against Hughes’ second role of fairy king Oberon) that Fox’s portrayal really starts to win. Again, the lack of budget is clear with a set of donkey ears made from coat hangers, but they are almost incidental, for Fox’s transformation from man to ass is both comedic and visceral (as well as including a very rude penis-based joke of which one feels sure Shakespeare would approve). And Maddie Hill, a Titania every bit the equal to her Oberon, beguiles even as she falls under the bewitchment that causes her to love an ass.

With such goings on, it is sometimes possible for the spellbound love mismatches of the four young romantic leads to neglect their own comedy. But here, Preece leads a quartet of great performances, visibly hurting as a Helena who believes all three of her friends are ganging up against her, whil ealso allowing herself and the others to hit every comedic note on exactly the right beat. If anything, the production’s use of multiple roles helps to bring more definition to these characters.

And the sense of anarchy that has been building up throughout really flies in the final act, as all of Shakespeare’s characters are intended to be onstage at one time. The Mechanicals’ presentation of their play to the court is where events really kick into high gear, with actors running offstage at one end of the building only to reappear at the other in a different costume. As well as being frenetic, it is also never less than hysterical.

And that is this production’s greatest gift: anybody who ever doubts that Shakespeare’s comedies can be genuinely funny has never seen them done as properly, or as well, as here. While there is plenty of liberty taken with the manuscript as we know it, this is a production ofA Midsummer Night’s Dreamthat is as close in spirit to the original as one could wish for.

Runs until 1 July 2016 |Image: Go People Theatre

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