An industrial looking bunker, exemplified in dusty grey bricks, a metal staircase, plenty of hazy cigarette smoke and prostitutes in netted clothing – and later, fairies – lurk in the background. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, emerges as a high status gang leader with the other characters sprawled around him on the sofa. Egeus, father of Hermia, drags in his daughter along with her two admirers, Lysander and Demetrius, presenting the first love triangle as if it were a drug feud.
As the story goes, Hermia then elopes with her true love Lysander into the woods. Demetrius, her father’s choice, chases after her and is subsequently followed by Helena, who ardently pursues Demetrius in a surge of unrequited love. And so begins the entry into the world of the dream.
Arsher Ali, who some will recognise as the hilariously incompetent tag-along terrorist from the movie Four Lions and as A-Rab from E4’s Beaver Falls, here plays Puck and is represented as more of a sly magician than a mischievous rascal. He bewitches the relevant characters causing comic confusion aplenty.
Director Nancy Meckler makes an effortlessly seamless switch between the dark reality presented in the introduction and the magical woods. But the woods in this production are not characterised by a leafy abundance of trees and plants like other productions I’ve seen, but instead, by a silhouette of trees in the backdrop, which lacks a degree of tension and mystery. This feels like an opportunity missed. However, what the set lacks in extravagance, the characters make up in comedy. This version, more than any other, had me in belly-ripping stitches of laughter throughout.
Matti Houghton plays a clumsy, child-like Hermia, skipping around the stage with her short, scruffy hair, squeezing in her sleeping bag like a caterpillar at the start. Her lover Lysander is full to the brim with charm, aptly played by Nathaniel Martello-White, whose expressions of love are performed in cheesy bursts of singing.
Lucy Briggs-Owen, as Helena, is even more entertaining in her hysterical desperation and pursuit of Demetrius. The cat fight she has with Hermia when she thinks her bewitched friends are mocking her is especially funny, as they both speed around the entirety of the stage in their torn clothes and twig-set hair, ready to pounce, while the men stand helpless.
The subplot forms a large part of the humour, where the acting troupe of six labourers rehearse for a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe to present to the Duke. They form close male bonds of friendship in their dramatic ineptitude, especially illustrated in Bottom’s (Marc Wootton) extroverted enthusiasm to play, and over-act, every character. The actual performance is terrible and hilarious – each labourer swelling his ego with his conception of his own importance. Starveling scorches his hand consistently and humorously with a lamp in his hand while playing the role of Moonshine, and Snug is an expressionless Lion, particularly memorable in his increasing confidence throughout this play within a play.
In addition to this, the interchanging state of the key characters is particularly poetic and enticing, especially when involving the fairies. Hippolyta Queen of Athens becomes Titania Queen of the Fairies in what is a mesmerising scene of transformation where the fairies undo her hair and dress her in black.
In other scenes, floating chairs and sofas emerge from the top of the stage, draped in garlands, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This creative set up is used effectively in the awakening of the characters towards the end of Dream.
But it is Oberon and Titania’s (Jo Stone-Fewings and Pippa Nixon) transformation dance as they enter reality once more that is distinctly moving in its suggestive elegance and its depiction of the re-instigation of love, particularly as Oberon tactfully slips Titania’s white shoes back on to her feet, one at a time.
Thus, in magnificent celebration, the play comes to an end with the levels of social status visibly restored and the joyous wedding ceremonies intact.
Meckler has done a splendid job with this production of Dream, leaving the audience with a feeling of having just emerged from a magical land, as well as an aching belly and sore throat from the chuckles, and I would advocate that it’s worth the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon just to witness it all.
A Midsummmer Night’s Dream is showing at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 5 November 2011.
Pictured: Pippa Nixon (Titania).Photography by Ellie Kurttz. Copyright: RSC
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