February 1, 2009, by Peter Kirwan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Propeller) @ Liverpool Playhouse
It makes a pleasing change to see a Dream during a hugely cold spell at the end of January, as opposed to in sweltering heat – which suggests to me a production that actually has something interesting to do with the play, rather than rolling it out to fill a quiet summer slot. This, the second half of Propeller’s current touring double-bill, is a revival of a production from a couple of years back, and it’s magical.
Magical in the literal sense of the word, for at the centre of the production stood a disappearing cabinet, through which Puck and Bottom both appeared and disappeared at various points. The idea of conjuring fitted a design which conflated several elements of late Victorian/early 20th century entertainment culture. Lysander, bizarrely, appeared in vampire cape and ruffs, Puck’s ruby slippers and striped stockings referenced the Wicked Witch of the East while Theseus was clad in top hat and tails. In doing so, Propeller lovingly evoked the golden age of this production, the proscenium arch stage spectacular which the company subverted in their physical and hysterically irreverent style.
A white set, walled on three sides, couldn’t help but evoke Brook, but Michael Pavelka’s eye for detail led to some lovely touches, such as a row of suspended chairs that provided a gallery level for actors to crawl along, culminating at either end in the white, carved-wood high thrones from which Titania and Oberon tossed defiance at one another. Mostly, though, the plain set acted as a playground for the actors, with glockenspiels set into the wall on either side for live music and hidden areas behind the walls for sudden emergences.
Events were presided over by Jon Trenchard’s sprightly Puck. Giggling and running around in tights and tutu, this was a refreshingly childish Puck, joyful and mischievous. One of the production’s key scenes came as Puck emerged from the massed bodies of the other cast members, dressed in white to collectively speak the lines of the First Fairy. Puck toyed with the group, who linked together to create large shapes, moving and breathing as one, some blowing down harmonicas (used throughout the production to provide underscore, usually effective but occasionally annoying as they cut across dialogue), while Puck ran about, allowed himself to be carried on their backs and finally reduced them to giggling on the floor as he tickled them all. With the whole company working together to bring life and interest to even this short exchange, the tone was set for an ensemble production that, as with yesterday’s Merchant, prioritised the overall effect over any individual performances.
One complaint to quickly mention, however, was the bizarreness of some of the doubling. While it was wonderful to see the excellent Richard Frame doing great things with both Hermia and Snug, this led to an unnecessary amount of running off stage before the end of scenes in order to do costume changes, and made for an unsymmetrical final scene with Hermia inexplicably disappearing from the court group before the Mechanicals’ play. Also awkward was Chris Myles’ doubling of Egeus and Quince. As Myles was in ‘Quince’ costume immediately before "Pyramus and Thisbe", this meant that it was Quince who came on in order to give Theseus the list of entertainments, nervous and smiling gormlessly. His nervousness struck him silent, causing Theseus to read out the list of entertainments (why would Quince be providing the list of all the other possibilities), and then Hippolyta to tell Thesesus that she had seen the play and it was ‘nothing’ – entirely out of character for the hitherto kindly Hippolyta, and logically nonsensical – why would the queen have already seen the play being provided for her wedding entertainment? Why not have simply used one of the spare actors to come on as Philostrate for that one scene? These doubling problems weren’t crippling, but seemed to create a rather unnecessary amount of work in the redistribution of lines and business.
Small gripes, though, in such a rich production. Frame, in particular, was fantastic in both parts. As Snug/Lion he drew laughs from his mewing roars and his general lack of intelligence (plus a costume with "I’m not a lion" painted across the back). As Hermia, however, he was a revelation. Gently spoken and with some comically feminine giggles, this Hermia was girly and slightly spoiled, waving Lysander away from her ‘bed’ magesterially. However, once riled by Hermia’s "puppet", she was a terror. Frame dropped the affected feminine voice as she asked "How low am I?!", reverting to an undisguisedly male growl of anger. All girlish pretensions were cast aside and suddenly the physically imposing hard man was all present, cricking ‘her’ neck and lunging after Helena. Lysander and Demetrius needed all their strength to restrain Hermia, making for some wonderful physical comedy as the four lovers disputed.
The other lovers provided similarly good value. Babou Ceesay’s tall and rather inelegant Helena was ruthless in her pursuit of Demetrius, particularly in one moment where she broke down in pitiful tears, causing him to draw near, before she suddenly leapt up and wrapped herself around him. The two were later found crawling across the high row of suspended chairs, Demetrius increasingly panicked at his inability to escape. Demetrius and Lysander, meanwhile, were both funny under their enchantments, bringing out the trite poetry of love and slapping at each other in a distinctly feminine spat – a comic contrast to the raging rhino unleashed in Hermia. Yet there were shades of darkness, such as in Lysander’s angry and spontaneous punching of Hermia as she clung to him, knocking her to the floor and raising a gasp.
While the fairies were rarely off stage, playing various exotic instruments to complement the action, they took less of an active role in events than in some other recent productions. Yet, when part of the action, they were always entertaining. Titania’s retinue of four extremely camp retainers, for example, pawed over Bottom, taking orgasmic delight in the prospect of scratching his ears. Oberon and Titania themselves were regal, particularly Richard Dempsey’s austere Titania whose presence was commanding, her air of authority only being shed to any extent when entwined with Bob Barrett’s Bottom. The indignity of her situation was, therefore, all the more comic- a prolonged fart from Bottom as the two went to sleep was greeted with an ecstatic "Oh, how I love thee!"
Finally, the Mechanicals were well-performed, bringing out individual idiosyncracies in all of them. Trenchard, doubling as Starveling, was a stand-out during "Pyramus". An egoist, he resented his minor part holding up a lantern, and grew increasingly irritated as the performance dragged on and his toy dog was repeatedly stamped on. Finally, as Bottom ordered him to "take your flight", he snapped, screaming "Fine! I’m never working with you amateurs again!" and stormed offstage, causing Bottom and Quince to lose their places for quite some time as they wondered what was wrong with him. John Dougall, as a full-bearded Flute, minced entertainingly, and Barrett exaggerated Bottom’s Pyramus even further than the text called for, including a priceless moment as he tried to remember his lines and re-ran through his entire part until he got to the line he needed. The hysterics of the on-stage audience were matched by those of the Liverpool crowd.
This Dream did its work effectively and entertainingly, providing an inventive and consistently funny evening that made the play feel fresh once more. While not a revolutionary production, the skill and intelligence of the company was obvious in their grasp of simple building blocks so often ignored by others – an eye and ear for a good joke, generous ensemble playing and a genuine enjoyment of language. A high benchmark is already set for the year.