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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – SHAKE Festival

Writer: William Shakespeare   

Director: Jenny Caron Hall

Showing as part of the SHAKE Festival, a rehearsed reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream went live on Zoom to an audience across 18 countries. In her introduction, director Jenny Caron Hall suggested that, in a time of crisis, there is “no better place to escape to” than Midsummer. Shakespeare’s play, with its emphasis on dreams and fantasy, challenges us to step outside our day-to-day reality, and enter another world.

Starring Dan Stevens and Rebecca Hall, the story is set in Athens. The Duke of Athens, Theseus (played by Stevens) is due to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Hall). They are approached by Egeus (David Sibley), who wants his daughter Hermia (Mairead Tyers) to marry his suitor of choice, Demetrius (Louis Ridnicki). Hermia much prefers the dreamy, romantic Lysander (played by Barnaby Taylor). Theseus gives Hermia an unenviable choice: marry Demetrius, or face the severity of Athenian law.

Unsurprisingly, the lovers take matters in their own hands, and plan to escape Athens. Hermia confides in her friend, Helena (played by Daniel Bowerbank, a bold and brilliant casting choice). As Helena herself is in love with Demetrius, she confesses the lovers’ plan to him, hoping to win his favour. That night, all four head out of the city, and into the forest.

The Athenians arrive to find themselves caught in a sub-plot of power plays between Oberon and Titania, the forest fairy King and Queen. Stevens and Hall take on these roles, and Hall’s interpretation of Titania – gracious and warmly maternal – is particularly strong. A group of tradesmen, rehearsing a play for the Duke’s wedding, also get caught in the crossfire, as Oberon – Stevens clearly enjoying this role – uses his servant, Puck (Wendy Morgan) to cast magic across the forest. The spell misfires and disorder reigns.

What is interesting is how Midsummer translates to an online experience. As a group of talking heads, the boisterous banter from the mechanicals works particularly well. The cast use light to create a sense of space, with a golden background for Stevens and Hall in Athenian mode, and all lights dimmed as the action moves into the forest. It’s a simple device, but effectively illustrates the confusion and distress as the magic is revealed.

The standout performance comes from Daniel Bowerbank. The play adopts gender-blind casting for several roles, including Bottom (played by comedian Luisa Omielan). It works for Midsummer where tradition is null and void. Bowerbank plays Helena with real sensitivity, and engages beautifully with the audience. Helena’s song, performed by Bowerbank at the end of the play, brings us back to reality not with stern authority, but a moment of emotional resonance.

A play about mayhem and discord might seem a disingenuous choice for where we are, but this production of Midsummer – in having to do without the broad visual elements of Shakespeare’s comedy – leans into the connections lost and found. This is a Midsummer with authenticity; choosing the everyday over escapism, and creating a community that wasn’t there before.

Reviewed on 31 March 2021

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