Our fourth visit to the Noel Coward theatre in the space of a year and the fourth different production of Midsummer Night’s Dream we’ve seen in the past few years. It’s another triumph as far as the Michael Grandage season is concerned, as it’s a dream of a “Dream”, played for merriment and pleasure to a packed house by a talented and committed cast who have a whale of a time doing it. The more I see this play, the more I enjoy it, especially its high jinks scenes of mistaken love between the four young lovers, but I also really enjoy the scene where Titania falls in love with Bottom, and the rehearsal scenes by Quince and his crew, culminating in their final performance of the notable tragi-comedy “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Gifted actors and directors can create splendid comedy out of these scenes and that’s certainly what Michael Grandage has achieved with this production.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’d guess from the way that the Athenian Court is dressed in the opening scene that we’re somewhere in the early 20th century – smart, stylish but not overly vivacious in appearance. Fairyland, on the other hand, is like the set from “Hair”, with its inhabitants in a perpetual stage of inner peace and hallucination brought on by their wacky baccy. With this play, the more up-to-date the setting, the more you feel you can relate to the characters, which in turn sharpens the humour. However, none of this really matters, because the essence of the story is timeless; as Jenny Wren sings in “Barnum”, “love makes such fools of us all”.
Padraic Delaney and Sheridan Smith make a very mild mannered, democratic almost, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta. Mr Delaney (an excellent Babbybobby in The Cripple of Inishmaan, the previous Grandage play at this theatre) listens fairly and tries to be constructive in determining Egeus’ complaint about his daughter Hermia’s intransigency in whom she will agree to marry; Miss Smith meanwhile politely takes a backseat and won’t dream of interfering in matters of state; but both giggle like naughty young lovers when they think no one is watching. As Oberon, Mr Delaney is a very mischievous king of the fairies, not as angry as sometimes he is portrayed; and Miss Smith is an enchanting Titania, extremely laid back and content with the company of her pot-fuelled posse. There’s almost something of Edwin Drood’s Princess Puffer to her characterisation. It’s no secret; I am a little bit in love with Sheridan Smith (who isn’t?), and it only takes a certain smile to get your toes tingling. Gavin Fowler’s Puck is a cheeky chap – he and Oberon make a right pair of lads in their “love-in-idleness” “let’s anoint everyone’s eyes with love potion” games. He’s not really how I would imagine a merry wanderer of the night to look – he’s more the kind of guy you’d share a few pints down the pub with. But it works as a partnership. Leo Wringer brings just the right level of proper decency mixed with a touch of savage spite in his brief appearances as Egeus.
I always love the bickering and romantic and/or sexual confusion between Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, and this winsome foursome are no different. Susannah Fielding’s Hermia is rather precious and spoilt, and with a hilariously surprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight; Katherine Kingsley’s Helena is delightfully furious at how she is treated by the others whether they appear to be in love with her or not, and has an unsurprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight. There’s not a lot of character difference between Sam Swainsbury’s Lysander (a sensitive Cartwright in Privates on Parade, the first play in this season) and Stefano Braschi’s Demetrius (whose versatility brought alive several minor roles in Peter and Alice, the second) – they even wear the same Athenian standard issue underpants. Nevertheless, all four turn in exceptional comic performances, and their lengthy scenes in the forest are stuffed full of physical comedy that must be choreographed precisely within an inch of its life for it to look so slick.
And then, of course, there are the rude mechanicals. Confession time: I am not a particular fan of David Walliams; that’s not to say I don’t like him but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have managed largely to avoid Little Britain and his other TV comedy roles. However, I have to say, his Bottom is officially fabulous. Very camp, he plays him as the forest’s biggest luvvie and it works a treat. The whole performance is crammed with comedy gesture that is never quite over-the-top and would be completely appropriate to an old acting ham like Bottom. Whether it’s constantly running his hand over Flute’s face, taking odd words and giving them a life of their own (“some man or other must present WALL!”), eyeing up his colleagues in a not entirely platonic manner whilst they’re not looking, or encouraging some enforced (let’s not beat about the bush) fellatio in Pyramus’ elongated death scene, his performance is a total joy from start to finish. As Miss Smith is diminutive, Mr Walliams is tall and imposing – visually, they make a very nice comedy juxtaposition. Richard Dempsey has an effective line in intellectual geek in his portrayal of Peter Quince, and the other mechanicals all make the best of their traditional dimwit characters and acting performances. I make a very appreciative mention of Jack Brown, the understudy appearing in the role of Flute, who made an almost attractive Thisbe and brought the house down with the sheer stupidity of his final scene – great stuff.
All the Grandage season plays have been absolutely top-notch so far and this is no exception. Unashamedly funny all the way through; I can’t recommend it too highly. We haven’t booked to see Jude Law in Henry V – but I do hope that Mr Grandage puts together another similar season in the near future.