August 22, 2008, by Peter Kirwan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
Considering the RSC’s fondness for revivals (cf the recent Henry VI/Richard III cycle and the touring The Comedy of Errors), it’s perhaps surprising that this is the first time I’ve been to one that I saw first time round. Greg Doran’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the better productions of the 2005 Comedies Season, and was also my first introduction to several of the actors I’d be increasingly impressed by in subsequent appearances: Jonathan Slinger, Jamie Ballard, Paul Chahidi, Trystan Gravelle and Miles Richardson, to name a few. I was more than pleased, therefore, to hear that the production was returning for the 2008 summer season, re-cast and re-imagined for the Courtyard’s thrust stage. Dreams are too plentiful, but I had no reservations about revisiting one I had enjoyed so much.
Did it live up to expectations? Well, yes and no. Try as I might to judge the production on its own merits, I couldn’t help but compare the company to the original cast and several performances just didn’t grab me in the way their predecessors did. Likewise, the new design for the forest (bare mirrors) was, I felt, less interesting than the junkyard of the original, not least because the old design made sense of the fairies’ matching costumes. And of course, any comedy always suffers when you know the jokes – the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence, which had me crying with laughter in 2005, here only raised a smile. So, for that reason, I’m going to attempt to avoid comparisons in this blog, because while I may not have enjoyed it as much as the original, this was still on its own merits a perfectly good production which was consistently entertaining and full of interest.
The set, a simple mirrored wall covering the entire upstage area, was used to excellent effect by the lighting designer. A large spherical moon hung high above the stage, moving slowly downstage as the first half progressed, while different patterns of light and shadow indicated the passage of time on the wall, going from summery sunset to the pale full moon. This back wall also allowed for effective use of silhouette; fairies appeared behind the wall playing with bubbles as Titania slept, before being scattered by the vastly oversized shadow of Oberon. Other spectacular effects were achieved through a network of bulbs above the stage that were lowered at various points, including the end of the first half, to create a lattice of floating lights.
The fairies were the most entertaining part of the production, a dishevelled chorus who haunted the lovers and mechanicals throughout their time in the forest. Giggling and playing like naughty children, they took pleasure in cruelly echoing the terrified squeals of Hermia as she called for "Lysander?" and in chasing the Mechanicals with "animals" created out of their own tools and props. One particularly funny – and also touching – moment saw the exhausted Hermia walk onstage, only to be repeatedly picked up and placed back where she had entered, forever walking but not getting anywhere. The fairies also acted throughout as puppeteers, controlling both the Indian Boy (a model created by the Little Angel theatre) and small models of themselves with oversized heads, who they made ‘fly’ around Bottom’s head as he reclined. Always involved and watching, the physical inventiveness with which they enhanced the various scenes between the lovers was always welcome, whether rifling through Lysander and Hermia’s suitcases, creating branches with their arms that the young people had to fight through or simply acting as an onstage audience and "oohing" and "awwing" appropriately.
The lovers themselves were good value too. Edward Bennett, fresh from his Ian Charleson nomination for playing Roderigo in the Donmar’s Othello, particularly shone as a public schoolboy caricature, pathetic and sneering, eventually running away from Helena after she bested him in a tussle. Kathryn Drysdale was also very funny as Hermia, tiny but all-powerful as she bossed Lysander about, flounced around the stage and generally ruled the roost. As events became more tangled, the temper started to erupt, culminating in a wonderful moment as Helena accidentally let slip the word "puppet", immediately retracting it as she realised the effect it would have. Lysander and Demetrius both gasped, and then backed away whistling as Hermia’s rage built to boiling point. It took both men to restrain her in her rage, and even then they struggled. Tom Davey and Natalie Walter made up the quartet, Davey playing Lysander as a layabout student type in casual clothes (a nice contrast to the well-dressed Demetrius, giving a sense of why Egeus preferred the latter). Walter, meanwhile, made for a flappy and very amusing Helena who was particularly good with the physical side, all arms and legs as she tried to protect herself from Hermia.
The weakest parts of this production came in the Mechanicals scenes, though these were far from awful. Ryan Gage was a very good Flute, good-humoured and natural in his transition from indignation at playing a woman to making a go of it with a smile. He shone in the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes, particularly as Thisbe found Pyramus dead. Here, the playlet shifted a gear from high farce, with Flute suddenly discovering his acting chops and delivering the final lines beautifully as the rest of the Mechanicals peered out from behind the curtain in astonishment. However, I was quite disappointed with Joe Dixon as Bottom. Dixon, who was an excellent Oberon in the original production, here seemed horribly miscast. While there were occasional flashes of comedy (including a very funny dance scene after getting his ass’s head where he moonwalked and did the robot), the jokes in the text itself were lost in uninspired delivery. Too often he relied on silly noises, such as a series of "whooshes" interspersing his "Die, die, die, die, die" finale, or on his Brummie accent to get the laughs.
The Pyramus and Thisbe finale itself was excellent. The jokes stolen by the Globe production. involving the chink in the wall being between Snout’s legs, were here extremely well done and rapturously received by an hysterical audience (the references to ‘stones’ and ‘holes’ seeming so obvious when played in this way that one can only assume Shakespeare put them there deliberately). I’ll break my rule and make one comparison: the exuberance of Paul Chahidi was sorely missed in the role of Quince, as Roderick Smith didn’t get nearly enough mileage out of it. After the prologue, he stripped down to black tights, rolled acrobatically across the floor and presented himself as an action figure called "Truth". It’s a great interpretation of the role, but Smith’s delivery was muted, meaning the ridiculousness of the part was overshadowed by the rest of the activity. However, Ricky Champ almost stole the show as Snout, funniest in a moment when the portable stage on which the Mechanicals were performing was removed to reveal him agonising to Quince over his performance.
Peter de Jersey and Andrea Harris were decent as Oberon and Titania, de Jersey making a particularly effective entrance in the midst of dry ice, sweeping up on a mobile platform to appear as if from nowhere. Their reunion, sealed as they both flew off into the flies, was suitably magical, and Harris was particularly good when bewitched, cooing over Bottom almost deliriously. Oberon was less powerful than might have been expected (save the spectacular shadow scene), more an active meddler than a tyrant. He was ably assisted by Mark Hadfield’s Puck, who turned up in a pile of rags at the start and dominated the stage for much of the play. He adopted some interesting horsey mannerisms to go with the fawn-elements of his costume (woolly legs and hooves), and it was fun to see a Puck more middle-aged and world-weary than most, trudging around as he did his master’s bidding, yet still getting occasionally excited at the folly of the mortals he taunted so.
So, a mixed bag. In many ways, I wish I’d seen this without seeing the original production, as I think I would have enjoyed it far more. However, the company have done a lot of excellent work, and particularly between the lovers and the fairies this remains one of the best Dreams I’ve ever seen. It was also a tantalising first glimpse of the company who are also performing Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost, and it should be far more fascinating to see them playing parts that they’ve created from scratch, rather than trying to fit into an old company’s shoes.
I liked that Helena was played as being inwardly excited by the attention she was getting, letting small glimpses of it escape, and then correcting herself to admonish her lovers.
The thing that made me laugh the most were the swivelling ears on the ass head. Slight dips of the head made them spin like helicopter blades almost as if they had minds of their own.
I too thought the mechanicals’ play wasn’t as funny as in 2005. I almost died of laughter back then, but this time the novelty of the staging had worn off, particularly after seeing the Globe’s tribute to it. But I did notice this time that the line “And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper” makes perfect sense if it is formed by someone’s right and left legs.