June 5, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (WUDS) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

Writing about web page http://www.wuds.co.uk/

June has only just begun, and already I’ve seen my second Dream of the year. I admit, I’m always a little bit sceptic when entering an auditorium for another production of this play; it’s so over-familiar and over-produced, matched probably only by Romeo for the amount of workaday productions trotted out annually, that I find myself demanding justification for yet another revival. Unlike Romeo, however, my experience of the Dream is that it tends to resist bad production- even the most uninventive or unoriginal productions I’ve been to have still managed to entertain.

Warwick University Drama Society, though, refused to settle for mediocrity with their new production. This Dream was dominated by the untamed, wild spirit of its fairy world, a chaotic and animalistic passion that drove events forward at high speed and maximum volume. Yet this was by no means a free-for-all: the performers and choreographers demonstrated tremendous discipline and technical ability in unleashing what looked like all-out carnage but was actually carefully planned for maximum effect.

Borrowing a device from last year’s student production of The Tempst, Puck was played simultaneously by five different actors, loosely embodying different aspects of the fairy’s character: the permanently-grinning Soraya Nabipour, for example, took on the moments of fast activity, pounding her feet eagerly on the floor as she prepared to launch her flights; while Annabel Betts, weighed down by an enormous rucksack, took on a quieter and more inquisitive role. Puck was best, though, as a collective, the five actors working together for greater effect. The mental level and attitude of the fairies was pitched somewhere between children and animals; the Pucks picked fleas off each other and scratched each others’ heads, and reacted with fear to the persecutions of Titania’s fairies, huddling together for comfort. Titania’s fairies were also five in number, allowing for what were effectively showdowns between the two groups, accompanied by drumming and dancing. The asides and character moments among these ten were too numerous to attempt detail; characters rolled across their fellows’ backs, built pyramids, picked at scenery, broke into unexpected song, slithered or jumped across the stage and teased each other. The overall effect was more important than the detail; the kids had taken over the playground, and the fairies captured the excitement, humour and chaos unleashed when power and childishness are given free rein.

Over this presided Kate Richards’ Titania and Gwilym Lawrence’s Oberon. Titania was a snarling animal of a fairy queen, dominant and instinctive whether pawing Bottom or intimidating Oberon. Oberon, by contrast, was unexpectedly childish, a meek and high-pitched simpleton with a sing-song voice who was easily cowed by Titania and her stronger servants. Lawrence’s performance brought out a great deal from the role, making his request for the Indian boy not tyrannical but curious, and his subsequent actions were borne out of petulant retribution. A particular amusing but telling action saw Oberon and the Pucks fascinated, almost hypnotised, by the necklace of the Boy’s mother which Titania wore around her neck, following it with their eyes and swaying in unison. The antics and conflicts were occasioned by childish conceptions of possession and greed, innocent yet ingrained. It also went some way to explaining the mistakes made with the love-in-idleness; the fairies were hopelessly out of their depth in their attempts to interfere, thus increasing the comedy of the crossed wires.

The flower itself was a camera with extended flash gun, accompanied by a supernatually huge flash effect as the pictures of the sleeping lovers were taken. The fascination of the fairies with the technology was a locating factor for a production which set itself (judging by the music and mortal costumes) in the 50s, at a period when rock n’ roll was gradually taking over from swing ballads. The walls of the studio were decorated in advertising cards and postcards of Athens, while the set itself was, on entry, set as a rehearsal space-cum-workroom for the Mechanicals’ production. With brooms acting as microphones, the six workers sang along to old records, immediately giving a nostalgic atmosphere to the setting.

The Mechanicals were generally excellent, and extremely amusing. Sam Maynard’s Bottom was effusive and over-confident, given to fixed dramatic gestures (his ‘lover’ and ‘tyrant’ were identical), yet good-natured with it. His suggestions were greeted with increasing annoyance by Tim Kaufmann’s Quince, while Tom Dale’s Snug drew immediate audience sympathy with his meek voice and clear terror of Bottom’s roaring. Briony Rawle was also excellent as Flute, a blokish lass who had to be continually reminded to raise her voice. The final performance of "Pyramus" was suitably riotous. Quince began his Prologue terrified, but grew in confidence until he was acting out the entire play with exaggerated gestures; Beth O’Sullivan’s Starveling donned a hat with foliage, lamp and toy puppy attached, and mistakenly claimed that her thorn-bush was "my bush"; Laura Cassells’ simple-minded Snout began each of her speeches with "erm, erm, erm" and delivered them with a stupid grin; Bottom forgot his lines regarding the chink, prompting his fellows to remind him with various obscene gestures; Snug and Flute managed to hurt each other during their "confrontation"; and Flute, who had begun acting properly while bent over Pyramus’ ‘body’, grew so tired with the repeated reminders to pitch her voice higher that she rushed through her final lines in a second and died ceremoniously, falling so heavily across Bottom that she had to be physically thrown off him as he recovered.

Watching this were the nobles, who sat in the audience for the performance. Oberon and Titania were doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta, whose positions were reversed. In the play’s opening moments, the newly-captured Hippolyta was seated under a bright spotlight as Theseus paced around her, positioning her in what he considered to be the most attractive positions. Her resentment and hatred of him were clear throughout the first scene, but appeared to have been resolved by the hunting party. Once married, however, Theseus became boorish; testy and drunk on wine, he provided fodder for laughter for Hippolyta and the lovers, but Hippolyta grew increasingly tired with his slurred remarks and insults, eventually escorting him off to bed.

The aspect of the production which worked least well was the lovers. Amy Tobin, playing Hermia, was a good two heads shorter than the others, allowing for some fun physical comedy, particularly as she beat up the two tall men, and she was by far the best of the group. In a reversal of the RSC’s recent clothing conventions, Stewart Clarke’s Lysander was formally suited and clearly the better-kept man, while Matt Goad’s Demetrius wore leather jacket and slicked back hair, with which he was more concerned than his marital rights. While the production clearly tried to position Demetrius as having a bit of edge, Goad’s softly-spoken performance failed to convey any real sense of threat. Anna Burnell’s Helena, meanwhile, was posh, robotic in movements and motivated primarily by a rather pathetic petulance. While presumably played this way deliberately, it meant that this was a particularly unappealing Helena, severely limiting audience sympathy for the character; her petulance at her perceived mistreatment bordered on arrogance, the spoiled girl reacting badly to not being loved.

The lovers, however, all got better once both men were under the flower’s spell. Lysander and Demetrius engaged in some very amusing slapstick comedy as the two tried to prevent each other from reaching Helena, involving some ludicrous wrestling positions. Even Helena grew more interesting as her desperation grew, her poise shattered as she stood on a platform attempting to keep out of the mens’ reach. However, the production’s focus on the supernatural characters came at the expense of the lovers; as well as rendering their story less interesting by comparison, the multiple crawling characters distracted somewhat from the actual plot when the two shared the stage at the same time. In this the performances of the lovers didn’t help: too often, lines were rushed or babbled, the rhythm kept but the sense lost, particularly at the close of scenes.

Despite these final complaints, though, this was a riotous and thoroughly entertaining production that left me exhausted – there was so much going on, in the best possible sense, that any attempt to take it all in was doomed to failure. Rich, very funny and packed full of energy, the Dream continued to be justified in performance.

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