The programme notes for this new production of Midsummer Night’s Dream include a quote from Samuel Pepys, who in 1662 described it as “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life…nor shall ever again”. Well he didn’t know much about theatre, did he? Although I must confess I was a little disappointed when I first heard that this play would be in this year’s repertoire, only because we’ve already seen it twice very recently, and this would become the third time in three years – and indeed, we are also booked to see the Michael Grandage production in London in November. However, this new offering at the Royal and Derngate is such a funny, warm-hearted production, that within about four seconds of its starting I was hooked and after five minutes I remembered that you simply can’t have too much Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This production is directed by Gary Sefton, who, along with the R&D’s ex-artistic director Laurie Sansom, has provided us with some of the most memorable plays in Northampton since we’ve been here. Travels with My Aunt, Diary of a Nobody and A Christmas Carol all had his hallmark combination of clear story telling and inventively comic staging, with an emphasis on revealing the characters’ own funny little ways. And now we can add his Dream to his Northampton canon; a tight, pacey, eight-strong production that takes a few liberties with Will’s script – and why not – which make the story easier to follow and play it for laughs.
Ti Green has designed what appears to be quite a stark set at first, but as the play progresses you realise it has a life of its own, and the cascading sheets of coloured material that fall from heaven make an excellent visual contrast with the barren darkness beneath. I love the way the set changes at Puck’s behest; walls move, windows descend to his whim, like some mystic orchestra conductor. Although Oberon is the boss I get the feeling that Puck is in charge of this particular Dream. Colin Ryan appears at first as a very Puck-like Philostrate, Master of the Revels, and with a sinister smile he assumes blue surgical gloves to start his “operations”. It was Mrs Chrisparkle who pointed out to me that the blue streaks that appear on the characters faces and bodies once they are out in the wilds of fairyland show that they are under his influence – basically, they’ve been Pucked; a round of applause to her for that insight. Jon Nicholls’s effective music is at times eerie, at times sweet and really enhances the sense of otherworldliness.
The opening scene of this play can sometimes be a bit heavy handed with exposition, but here it’s as fresh as a daisy and crystal clear as to what’s going on. The characterisation is so instantly appealing that you can’t wait to see how these four (potential) lovers sort their relationships out. It’s also a delight to meet the rude mechanicals, the parts doubled up by the actors you’ve already met in the previous scene, with a female Quince, a scouse Flute, a falsetto Snout and an earnest and enthusiastic Bottom. A very regal Titania, a noble Oberon and real young fairies with genuine fairy-dust complete the cast. There were just two directorial decisions we didn’t quite agree with – Mrs C didn’t really like Bottom’s ass projectiling a dump; mainly because for the rest of the scene the actors ended up kicking it around the stage. And I wasn’t that keen on seeing Bottom’s bottom as he walked up the stairs and offstage – yes it’s a laugh, but quite a cheap one and doesn’t add to your understanding of the character or the play.
Apart from that, everything works like a midsummer night’s dream. Silas Carson’s Theseus is authoritative but kind, dispensing his ducal wisdom and gently mocking the idiotic rural actors. His Oberon is more generally decent than others I have seen, and when he realises his joke on Titania has gone too far he really seems to have trickster’s remorse. And I loved his beginning of Act Two entrance. Amy Robbins as Hippolyta has a great line in charmingly elegant teasing and her reactions to the ghastly Pyramus and Thisbe really made us laugh. As Titania she is both temptress and harridan. When she was tearing strips off Oberon, I thought, you really wouldn’t want to get into an argument with her; but her erotic appreciation of Bottom’s ass was the most convincing and delightful I’ve seen.
Naomi Sheldon gives a wonderful comic performance as Hermia, the nice little rich girl who has an eye for a bit of rough. There’s a fantastically funny fight scene where she accidentally gets involved, and her physical comedy that follows is just brilliant. She’s also very funny as Mistress Quince, the long-suffering director; traces of Wigan in her clipped accent I thought, and the very embodiment of Wall (isn’t that usually Snout’s gig?) Frances McNamee’s Helena is part sexy secretary, part oafish desperada throwing herself at the uninterested Demetrius and generally being run ragged round the forest; a terrific performance. Her Snug reminded me of a mid 1980s Victoria Wood creation, all introvert and tea and buns for one, until she lets rip as the lion. Well roared, lion.
Oliver Gomm’s Lysander is a brilliant comic creation – shifty, snide, and totally lacking in the good grace that Egeus demands for his daughter. When he falls under Puck’s spell and turns his affections towards Helena, he does it with such sudden comic energy it takes your breath away. His Flute sounds like a rustic Steven Gerrard and does a memorable comic turn as Thisbe, with a ridiculous drawn-out death scene that warrants its own round of applause. Charlie Archer as Demetrius represents all the dull respectability that Lysander isn’t, smug and toffee-nosed but never a caricature, and also bringing superb physical comedy to the role. Stripped to their Long Johns, Lysander and Demetrius have a brilliant boxing scene, and it’s comedy magic. As the high-pitched Snout, Mr Archer plays a hilariously simple soul who can just about portray moonshine, barely.
The role of Egeus is purely functional and doesn’t have much in it to make an actor shine, but as Bottom, Joe Alessi has enthusiastic attack, great comic timing and makes a superb, rather loveable ass. And finally Colin Ryan’s Puck is slippery and ethereal, dispensing joy and mystery wherever he goes; he looks perfect for the part and gives an eloquent Irish lilt to Shakespeare’s poetry. What you take home with you after this show is a feeling of satisfaction, of intelligent physical comedy, and above all the memories of a lot of laughs, and you can’t say fairer than that.