Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Paul Hart
It is neither midsummer not dreamy in London in January, but the Watermill Theatre hope to transport us all with their new production of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy now playing at Wilton’s Music Hall. Kudos, at least, for being the first of the year – ahead of the doubtless many others to follow once the nights draw out – but this bold and energetic attempt is bogged down by design choices that often chaotically distract from its narrative purpose.
Lovers Lysander and Hermia steal away to the wood on the eve of a big society wedding where they are pursued by friend Helena who hopes the spurned Demetrius will fall for her instead. Meanwhile, the Fairies are at loggerheads over an Indian changeling, so Oberon decides to teach his Fairy Queen a lesson, unleashing romantic enchantment on all who enter the wood. With amateur theatrics in preparation, are the evenings events real or just a strange dream?
There has been a notable shift in emphasis in the most recent productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, as with last year’s immersive effort at The Bridge Theatre, here it is the comedy of the Rude Mechanicals that is not so much given but actively demands the limelight so often reserved for the Fairies and Lovers. With a performance accident preventing the appearance of Lauryn Redding, replacement Victoria Blunt invigorates the production with a big, brassy and bolshie Bottom whose luvvie arrogance and stylised acting lights up the stage, giving much needed pep to an otherwise uneven concept.
Every scene featuring the Mechanicals is a highlight and their final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe – that so often weighs down the conclusion once the Lovers’ dramas are resolved – is an inspired and hilarious comic skit, borrowing much from The Play That Goes Wrong in its deliberate amateur awfulness. It is a scene well worth the wait in an otherwise encumbered 2.5-hour show.
The production’s other ideas make far less sense, and initially framed backstage in a theatre with ropes, sandbags and ladders, the device is little used. The Fairies become top-hatted but ragged cabaret dancers somewhere between Fred Astaire and the Artful Dodger, while the Lovers are Victorian gentlefolk. Yet, there is little that coherently draws the strands together – for a while it seems to be Vaudeville but even that dissolves as rapidly as Titania’s enchanted senses, leaving only a patchy approach that suggests the three sections of the play were designed independent of one another.
There are some other peculiar inconsistencies as well; Oberon musters imaginary herbs and potions for Puck to use on her prey, but Bottom is given real “wine” as Titania’s bedfellow. Likewise, integrated music may be the big selling point, but there is no clear alignment between the song choices and the pseudo-nineteenth-century setting, or indeed no clear decision to settle at least on music consistently from the same era. Sound and projection are problematic with lyrics frequently obscured which makes the effectiveness of the musical interludes haphazard at best, although when used to underscore the beat and emotional rhythm of the scene it works extremely well.
Of the performances, other than Blunt who dominates with a finely-tuned comic interpretation that belies the hasty preparation time, Emma Mcdonald’s Titania is regal and expressive, her scenes are enjoyably played and she gives real clarity to the language which Mcdonald speaks with a natural ear for its cadence. Billy Postlethwaite’s Lysander has more grounded sincerity and romantic verve than often seen, while Robyn Sinclair has some great scenes as Helena.
Given the disruption to the performance schedule, the conceptual approach hasn’t quite gelled, there are good moments but overall it often seems frenzied and disparate. The performances are enjoyable and a recreation of the Pyramus and Thisbe legend is worth staying for, but playing in repertory with Macbeth it seems like a missed opportunity to try something darker, to consider the wretched power of men like Oberon and Theseus to make demands of woman and while this Hippolyta fleetingly abjures the company of her fiancé, their final reunion seems unconvincing. There will be many versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream before the year is out but how many will we really remember?
Runs Until 15 February 2020