March 1, 2013, by Peter Kirwan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Custom/Practice) @ Nottingham Playhouse
Rae McKen’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened with a framing device that left no doubt as to the production’s intended audience. Set in a modern detention room, a group of assorted school stereotypes assembled, bickering over mobile phones and classroom politics. After a short while, their velvet-jacketed teacher ‘Mr Goodfellow’ entered the room and handed out copies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, telling the students that this would be the evening’s activity. Faced with the initial reluctance of the group to engage, Goodfellow began clicking his fingers. One by one the students reeled, and their diffident delivery turned into embodiments of the characters, until the small classroom set shifted to send the actors into the Athenian woods.
The device bore no relevance to the main action, which offered a very traditional take on the play. Against a dappled backdrop of tall trees, and in a ‘forest’ populated by vertical poles from which fairies hung, the small ensemble performed at high speed to bring in a school-friendly production at a hair over two hours. With eight actors doubling, there were a number of clunky and rather unnecessary interventions to explain lacunae: ‘Starveling’ failed to turn up for rehearsal, and his non-appearance at the Mechanicals’ performance prompted Snout to perform double duty as Wall and Moonshine, and the lovers were required to vacate the stage in order to return to perform Pyramus and Thisbe. In drawing attention to its budgetary constraints (although less on the lavish set and more on an extra pair of hands would have been preferable), the production also repeatedly pointed to what it was unable to be, rather than making a coherent statement for itself.
The advantage of the extensive doubling was the requirement of a high level of energy from the performers, which was sustained throughout. Once within the forest, events moved at a tremendous lick. Puck appeared chatting to a pool of light, which spoke as a pre-recorded chorus of voices to stand for the fairies, and Oberon and Titania arrived without retinues, allowing the three actors to race through the establishing scenes as quickly as possible. While this made for a snappy performance, the production’s biggest problem was the treatment throughout of the text as something to be got out of the way. At its worst, this led to moments such as Titania’s reawakening, where no breath was left for reaction or consideration as she saw Bottom with sober eyes for the first time. The sacrifice made in the service of pace came at the cost of subtlety, reflection and variation of tone, internal logic giving way to easy laughs.
What the speed of the production did allow was a focus on physical comedy, particularly between the four lovers. Rebecca Loudon as Helena stood out, moving from desperate supplication (including, rather problematically, embracing Demetrius as he threatened to assault her, causing him to collapse on top of her in exasperation) to a feisty confidence as the confusions reached their peak. Embracing something of the pantomime, Loudon most effectively trod the line between pathos and ridicule, coming up with a plaintive but very present Helena. The production dwelt on the importance of growing up, but the main action revelled in its childishness, whether Hermia wrapping herself around Lysander’s legs until she slid gracelessly down to his feet, or Demetrius and Lysander squeezing their cheeks together as they marched out to duel. While the physical business was well choreographed, there was little originality or thematic interest in these slapstick scenes, but the company did achieve an energetic physicality that amplified the frenetic confusion of these scenes.
There was more invention in the presentation of the Mechanicals, with Loudon again excelling as a hyperactive Quince attempting to direct their interlude. Here, the childish humour worked much better as characters talked over one another, interposing modern jokes with the early modern text, or as Bottom repeatedly and accidentally barged his fellows out of the way. Quince and Snout bristled with sexual tension, continually coming together only to be pulled apart at the last moment, with the repeated joke that the rest of the players were entirely unaware. Naoufal Ousellam’s Snug gave a comically diffident performance as the Lion, unfazed by the presence of Theseus, while Daniel Francis-Swaby’s Flute, initially shambling in hoodie and tracksuit trousers, turned up for the final scene in full drag including death-defying heels that he appeared to take a nasty tumble off when exiting (the actor didn’t emerge for the curtain call). For ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ the Mechnicals were yielded the whole stage to play with, Theseus and Hippolyta descending into the audience, and the company rattled through the jokes with an earnest desire to please (though the innuendo provided by talking through Snout’s legs was frustratingly dampened by having Flute behind rather than in front of Snout, missing the obvious point of ‘I kiss the wall’s stones’).
The production suffered throughout from a seeming lack of purpose, muting any genuine threat, sexual edge or pointed resonance. Quite why it chose to begin and end in a detention room remained unclear, and in fact added rather problematically to the production’s interpretive problems. If, as it appeared, ‘Mr. Goodfellow’ was to be the inspirational teacher encouraging his students to learn through a play, the manner in which his pupils were turned into puppets reciting lines with no personal engagement rather undid it, and the token return to the device at the end of the play did nothing to elucidate. Perhaps most disappointingly, this was a Dream that seemed to have almost no interest in the play itself, throwing away the language and the tensions of the forest in favour of a breakneck romp through the more obvious comic set pieces and easy jokes.
That’s not to say, however, that this production did not have value. After all, a young audience lapped up the physical humour, the modern jokes and the shriekingly fast performance of the Mechanicals, a successful and entertaining set piece. While the darker themes of the play were glossed over (no attention to the Indian boy, the feud between the fairies, or the troubling politics of Oberon/Titania and Theseus/Hippolyta), the fundamentals of the plot were clear and the actors game. It’s not unthinkable that a Dream should have no other end but to entertain. But despite attempts to ground the silliness, including a final graceful dance by Oberon and Titania, this was a production that simply didn’t allow itself time to think.A shorter version of this review initially appeared at Exeunt Magazine.