“What Masques, What Dances Shall We Have, to wear away this long age of three hours?

What: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Where: Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: 4th of August 2011

This is the third play that the Royal Shakespeare Company have performed from the Shakespearean canon since the launch of their new theatre – and to say that I did not approach the grim exterior of that new theatre with much enthusiasm would have been something of an understatement.

The productions of Macbeth and the Merchant of Venice which preceded this one, well, let’s just say they “had a kind of taste” and that taste did not match mine…… You can find my reviews elsewhere if you have a mind to.

And since my reservations about those two plays – particularly “Merchant…” – had to do with the director forcing them into settings which to my mind did violence to the text, I did not find my heart strangely warmed when the setting of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was transformed to some kind of nightclub in a Kray twins-era London and Egeus, Hermia’s father, delivered his complaint against Lysander in some strangled accent that to me proved to be quite incomprehensible and the lean and pale Helena adopted an accent that might have more to do with a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England than a woman accustomed to hanging around East-end dives and Hippolyta proceeded to spit on Theseus…………..

I was not encouraged.

The actors who wished to perform for the Duke of Athens arrived at the club to service the air-conditioning, no doubt a before-its-time innovation in the 1960s…… And the actors who would later be taking up the role of the fairies hung around the club in suits (the men) and their underwear (the women). Mmmm……

But then magic is magic and this dour and dowdy beginning was transformed the minute that Peter Quince (Christopher Godwin) began to lead his troupe in their casting and rehearsals and even more colour was added as Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Cobweb began to weave their spells.

And from that point onward the audience, myself included, were transported along in a mix of high energy, broad and slapstick humour and the beautiful and the grotesque.

It is the sign of a good performance if the company can send even those who came expecting to be disappointed, and with huge reservations, away with smiles on their faces.

And it is a strong cast that the RSC has found for itself in this production. Pippa Nixon as Hippolyta and Titania (more on this doubling up of roles in a moment) is particularly outstanding as is Asher Ali as Puck. Nixon’s Titania manages to be beguiling and sensuous even when she is entwining the ridiculous Bottom (Marc Wootton) who is all tin-cans and sausages when he is transformed into an ass.

Puck is a rainbow of colours and sardonic in the mischief he causes amongst the humans and he takes a great pleasure in waiting to see the outcome of his experiments.

The aforementioned Marc Wootton as Nick Bottom is a little too broad in his interpretation of the humour required for his part but is quite exhilarating as he seeks to rule over Quince in the design of the play that the amateur actors are bringing together. And a great performance by Felix Hayes as Snug brings a much more subtle humour which balances the interpretation of the interlude nicely.

A scene between Helena (Lucy Briggs-Owen), Hermia (Matti Houghton), Lysander (Nathaniel Martello-White) and Demetrius (Alex Hassell) is a whirl of bodies, limbs, dance and words which is breath-taking and brings spontaneous applause from the audience.

Indeed, many of the actors who seemed a little lacklustre in the opening scene excel as the performance continues particularly Lucy Briggs-Owen who grows in stature and believability the more she is lost in the forest and is battered and dirtied by her experience.

All RSC productions of the moment must of course have a twist – whether it be Elvis in Merchant of Venice, or the lack of witches in Macbeth – and here it is the doubling of roles of Jo Stone-Fewings as Theseus and Oberon and Pippa Nixon as Hippolyta and Titania. The notion, I think, is that the scenes in the forest are Hippolyta’s dream and that their content work to sort differences between her and Theseus and the distaste that director Nancy Meckler places in Hippolyta towards him at the opening of the play. Ultimately, these ideas are, thankfully, not too broadly explored and not intrusive as Shakespeare’s ideas  are the ones that dominate the scenes.

Ultimately, this production is strong and successful and a return to form for the RSC for the first time in 2011. The director has new ideas and innovations but these are best when they are in harmony with the text and are not too broadbrush in their application.

If you are wondering which of the 3 RSC current Shakespeare productions you should see and you can only afford one, then you should have little hesitation in making “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” your play of choice.

2 thoughts on ““What Masques, What Dances Shall We Have, to wear away this long age of three hours?

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare Reviews | twilightdawning

  2. Pingback: “…Your play needs no excuse…” | twilightdawning

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