What: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When: 25th February 2016
Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
When the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) last staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (https://twilightdawning.com/2011/08/09/what-masques-what-dances-shall-we-have-to-wear-away-this-long-age-of-three-hours/) , they achieved a production which gave us a strong and evocative (transformed) Bottom and Titania but a rather forgettable Hermia and Helena. Five years later, I think they have perhaps given us the opposite whilst once again managing to give us an entertaining production which like its predecessor is worthy of accolades.
So what is good here?
Well, top of my list is the exceptional Lucy Ellinson as Puck / Robin Goodfellow. Every line, every mannerism is well-judged. Her physical comedy is a real asset and the way that she moves around the stage, particularly when she is atop a moving ladder which is pushed around the stage on castors would be worthy of an acrobat or some such circus performer. Exceptional. I’ve said it once and I will say it again for I can think of no other word that quite governs her brilliant performance. With gestures and expressions which would be worthy of a great jazz dancer of the 40s or 50s, she would make this play worth seeing if there was nothing else good here.
But other good things there are. The quartet of confused lovers, Hermia (Mercy Ojelade), Helena (Laura Riseborough), Demetrius (Chris Nayak) and Lysander (Jack Holden) are the next to take my compliments.
Again, there is great physical comedy here as with Puck and the way the four interact is truly a hit. Laura Riseborough has an air of Miranda Hart about her in terms of her build and apparent clumsiness and this engages the audience from the first moment that she declares her love for Lysander. To have this whiff of television entertainment about the production is no bad thing as it draws in the part of the audience who are not regular theatre goers or not Shakespearians and gives them a hook with which to help to allow the evening’s performance to more fully engage them.
Messrs Nayak and Holden are also capable physical comedians and easy to watch as is the half-pint sized but dynamic Hermia whose physical characteristics contrast very well with Ms Riseborough as the script requires that they do.
Chu Omambala as Oberon, King of the Fairies and Ayesha Dharker as Titania, Queen of the Fairies are mostly memorable for the physical presence that they bring to their roles.
One of the themes of the production which the director is requiring us to think about is the role of amateur dramatic companies in British society and the way that it has helped all classes of UK life to appreciate the arts in the 20th and 21st centuries — and that we will be weaker if we allow this part of our culture to become solely the concern of the elder part of an aging community. To do this at the home of professional theatre where the great and the good of the paid profession have graced the boards is a brave decision indeed.
The play is set in what seems from the backdrop to be a bombed out building – perhaps blitz-time London. And the costumes of the majority of the “human” cast are of the kind that might have been the day wear of the people of that era or something that might be found amongst the cast-offs or charity shops. Several of the children who are part of the cast, playing the “fairy train”, have cardboard tags attached to the cardigans, jackets and blazers of the kind which might have been worn by those who were evacuees headed out of London during the heaviest bombing. All of this is, of course, only my surmise but it would seem to account for the visual dimension of much of the production.
To add to this concentration on amateur dramatics, we have the use of local groups of seasoned amateurs to play “The Mechanicals”, the group of tradesmen who provide the play-within-a-play which leads to Bottom’s encounter with the fairies and their queen.
Tonight, they were played by the Bear Pit Theatre Company but on other nights they will be played by another group, the Nonentities.
This casting decision was very brave and a mixed blessing. I warmed very much to Shirley Allwork as Starveling, and to Charlotte Froud as Snug who delivered a delightful lion in the story of Pyramus, Thisbe and the Lion. It was hard not to like David Southeard when he took up the guise as “the wall” in that story but I found David Mears as Bottom much more of an acquired taste.
Mr Mears was determined to be larger than life which to some degree the part of Bottom requires but he came across to me as someone who was “acting the fool” than someone able to live the part and be convincing. Maybe I was asking too much of him and I am being unkind but this is how I felt and one of the dangers of using amateurs in a production where they will be naturally contrasted with their professionally-trained companions. In addition, it was inevitable, in my mind, that he would be compared with Marc Wootton who played the part here, in the production I mentioned from five years before, and it is a comparison in which the current production comes off worst.
In addition, it is very notable that David Mears seems somewhat lost as the transformed Bottom when he becomes an ass and in this he is given very little visual help from the designers of costumes and set and the director. He seems a little lost at sea as do the rest of the Mechanicals who seem not sure what to do with this scene where by contrast they are able to take strong command of the “Pyramus, Thisbe and the Lion” scenes.
Other weaknesses? Well, the first scene when Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus discuss who should marry Egeus’ daughter is deadly and dull and gets the play off to a very weak start from which it recovers well — but it does need to recover.
A dance which is inserted towards the end which includes the full cast – amateurs and professionals – finds some mis-steps and many timing problems. Laura Riseborough, for all the strengths of her physical comedy, gabbles some of her lines and does not always wait for the audience to lull to deliver her next words – and consequently they are lost.
In terms of the costumery, the idea of the post-war cast-offs worn by the majority of the cast is somewhat lost in the addition of a slick white/cream suit being given to Oberon and the outfits worn by Titania and the other fairies which look, as my companion said, like market day at Camden Town.
But, all-in-all, these are relatively minor things in what is otherwise an energetic and accomplished production which uses some novel ideas but never loses the heart of the play and manages to allow us to encounter the human and the magical world – and those lost in-between – without ever getting lost ourselves. Many, many visitors will find a great night out at the theatre in this accomplished production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.