A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lawrence Boswell
Designer- Jamie Vartan
Sound design, composer – Jon Nicholls
Bath Theatre Royal production, Bath
Thursday 11th August 2016, 14.30
Darrell D’Silva – Theseus / Oberon
Katy Stephens – Hippolyta / Titania
Simon Gregor – Philostrate / Puck
Melissa James – Waiting Woman / Fairy
Natalie Windsor- Waiting Woman / 2nd Fairy
Phill Jupitus – Nick Bottom / Pyramus
Forbes Masson – Egeus / Peter Quince
Ekow Quartey – Snug / Lion
Vinta Morgan – Tom Snout / Wall
Oscar Batterham – Frances Flute / Thisbe
Gregory Gudgeon – Robin Starveling / Moon
Maya Wasowicz – Helena
Eve Ponsonby – Hermia
William Postlethwaite – Lysander
Wilf Scolding – Demetrius
The positives: in casting a well known comedian / TV personality in Phill Jupitus (Bottom), the audience profile was younger than normal for a Bath matinee. The lovers’ physical business used every physical bit of business in the book, and the onstage slapping, head-banging and punching was brilliantly executed with realistic slap sounds. To an audience seeing The Dream for the first time, this was a lot of fun, busy, had lots of snatches of song and music and it was thoroughly enjoyed. It will encourage first-time Shakespeare viewers to try again.
Phill Jupitus as Bottom, Katy Stephens as Titania
A great positive for me was placing the interval where Titania leads Bottom off to her bower. That feels natural, and holds the great lovers fight scene in the forest for the second half. Many recent productions split far later, when the lovers finally fall asleep, starting part two in daylight. Doing that focuses on the play-within-the play, Pyramus and Thisby, as the main, almost only, event of part two. It balances it too far towards the play within a play. It was right here.
Most of the audience will not have seen the two major productions this year: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Play For The Nation with local amateur groups taking the parts of the amateur players, or “Rude Mechanicals,” nor will they have seen the Globe’s radical and innovative version. Both were five star productions, among the very best of the very many versions that I have seen of my favourite play. In terms of resources, number in cast, production values, I never expected this to match them, and it didn’t. The excitement of the Bath Summer Season is that play runs are measured in weeks, not months. There will be no “Live to Cinemas” broadcast nor a DVD and Bluray on sale next year to boost the finances. You see it. It goes into the ether. Catch it now.
In this production they tried hard to use audience entrances and exits at the Theatre Royal in RSC / Globe thrust stage style, but at the end of the day a Napoleonic War era theatre (1805) with a proscenium stage is what it is. Squeezing down the outer aisles, or coming down steps to exit immediately at the front of the auditorium is merely a token gesture.
So I’m trying to eradicate comparison with those other 2016 versions, and judge it fairly. My main complaint was that it was cobbled together with ideas from other productions. You go in, and the plain white set for Athens screams “Peter Brooks,” the seminal production of the play. That was the one that made combining Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta / Titania near standard, as well as investing the lovers scene with gymnastic theatricality. In older productions, the Rude Mechanicals led the comedy. Since Peter Brook ( as here in Bath) the four lovers scene in the forest is the centrepiece of the play. The Athens set which was later lifted out of sight to reveal the forest, echoes Brooks even to the shape of the doors … not down to floor level. On going in, I approved, because I saw it as an homage to Peter Brooks.
The play starts with the entire cast across the stage dressed in black modern dress, before Theseus speaks. Then Egeus comes to complain that Hermia has been led astray by Lysander. He is wearing an RAF air force blue officer uniform greatcoat. It has a few bits of gold tape to suggest it’s merely “a military uniform” but whatever, at base it is an RAF uniform. Why? Well, the 2016 RSC Play For A Nation puts Egeus in RAF blue, which makes sense as it’s set in World War II costumes throughout. But here? Did they get the uniform cheap from the RSC?
The white set lifts and we’re in the black and white forest with a huge moon shape. Fortunately it’s abstract. The fairies come on with long white tubes. Other reviews say spears, but they’re long white tubes. There were three female fairies, so given their heights, I’d say Maya Wasowicz must have had to do fast changes from Helena.
Puck (Simon Gregor)
Enter Gollum, or Robin Goodfellow. Sorry, did I type Gollum? I meant Puck. In a further bizarre costume decision, the fairies are clad in body stockings with greenish abstract patterns. Puck is covered in blue and grey make up. Why this is so bizarre, is that later, putting the lovers to sleep (they’re in their underclothes, as in the Globe 2013 production), he has to move them around, and in doing so smothers blue greasepaint all over them, before rushing off to clean it off for Philostrate, then get it on again for the Puck ending. To us this demonic sprite echoed Ian Holm in the movie. They added echo effects to his voice and he grimaced and gestured for all he was worth. He had good business in screwing things up, failing too find his flying cage and exits. I said I wasn’t going to compare, but the RSC, Globe and Bristol Young Vic Theatre School all had female Pucks this year. It begins to feel like the default. Simon Gregor worked incredibly hard, but unfortunately, for both of us, it didn’t work. It was a strong Puck … five years ago I was complaining of Puck being too minor in productions, but the concept seemed misguided, the echo irritated, and it was just too “big.”
Titania had a circular bower descend, Puck had a metal box that could ascend or descend. Yes, I’ve seen both before too, though a good idea stays a good idea. Darrell D’Silva was a better Theseus than an Oberon … I’ve become accustomed to an Oberon as younger and moving more.
Helena (Maya Wasowicz) bangs their heads together, Demetrius (Wilf Scolding) right, Lysander (William Postlethwaite) left
The production went for sexy. If you want a Game of Thrones / Versailles audience you need a bit more explicit sex. Helena looked as if she was going to eat Demetrius alive in the forest scene, and she kept lifting one side of her skirt up to her thigh. If I had such well-shaped legs as her, I might well do the same. Titania took off her outer robes to reveal a body stocking with a mini skirt and tiny top for her first scene with Bottom. The dancing around him was enticingly sexy, but stylistically seemed very Mad Men (if we’re throwing around TV references) in that it was early 60s James Bond film sexy. Sexy also meant Lysander pulling his trousers off, and Helena grabbing his belt for a bit of floor whipping. All good fun really. The lovers fight, as usual, was the best bit. I think I had seen virtually all the physical stuff before, but they got an incredible amount of it in. They had a vey large Hermia / Helena height difference, which helps, as well as a fierce and feisty Hermia. In another reference, they had changed to torn and ragged clothes by their second long scene. Often done. Demetrius had a suit at the start, Lysander jeans / casual gear, moustache. Apart from that they seemed interchangeable, which is a lost opportunity. It doesn’t detract from the fun, but I like a clearly more uptight devious Demetrius and a more contrasting Lysander.
The Rude Mechanicals (first scene, Athens with white set). The beard song.
The show puts Phill Jupitus’ name right up front. It’s his first stage Shakespeare. He’s a big scruffy bloke (as am I), which is one interpretation of Bottom the Weaver, probably the classic one. I thought of David Walliams in the 2012 Grandage version with Sheridan Smith, then Matt Lucas in the 2016 BBC TV version. If you’re putting a well-known comedian as Bottom, the secret is to let his existing perceived persona dominate, and they did. But when I think of the very best Bottoms on stage, David Troughton in the John Caird RSC production, Pearce Quigley at the Globe in 2013, Christopher Logan for Headlong … they have (a) not been famous comedians (b) haven’t gone for a big hairy bloke. In fact they’ve gone for rather camp would-be thespians. It works better. In other words if I think of comedians doing Bottom in an imaginary production, I can see Frankie Howard doing it. Phill Jupitus had some excellent business … the ukulele song, a growling contest when they cast the lion, a nice song with the various coloured beards which everyone joined in. But in the end, I don’t think the part worked any better … nor any worse … than the amateur Stratford Players and the Belfast players in RSC’s Play For The Nation version. Take that as praise for the amateurs rather than criticism of Mr Jupitus. The bit I liked best was after they finished Pyramus and Thisbe (good coloured flags business for blood), the Mechanicals launched into the song “Monkey Man” and at the end, Phill did a rock star “Thank you, Athens!”
Pyramus & Thisbe? A particularly good Thisbe from Oscar Batterham and a vigorous Wall from Vinta Morgan. I liked the lion (Ekow Quartey) having a huge head built up from a painted box above his own head, but I really would have knocked it into the door on exit if I had it.
Oberon (Darrell D’Silva) and Titania (Katy Stephens)
I thought the production overall lacked pace, the long slow ending singing along to Theseus and Hippolyta (or rather Oberon and Titania) slowed it down a tad at the wrong point. It was a two and a half hour running time. Added songs? That was a bit of the time taken up, but they reinstated several Theseus / Hippolyta lines that are often cut, probably wisely, as they take off pace, but then Shakespeare wanted time for the lovers to get changed.
Overall … I’ll give it three stars. I’m glad I saw it, I’m glad they did it this year. Those new to the play (a lot of teens) loved it. That’s the whole idea. I always hated reviews that snottily quoted a dozen other productions from ancient days that were better. I’ve just done it. Sorry.
* * *
If you have Monkey Man, written by Toots Hibbert, first performed by Toots and The Maytals, famously covered by The Specials, you should credit it. Mr Hibbert wrote between 2 and 3 minutes of this play as performed here. Lawrence Boswell notes in the programme that he and Phill Jupitus shared a love of The Specials, so that is the reference.
Bath is doing what every other theatre does by considering “Press and PR” more worthy of a programme credit than a mere songwriter. I do understand that they’re trying not to give the game away and keep the song as a surprise.
Even so, I continue to note this on every production that fails to credit.
OTHER PRODUCTIONS REVIEWED ON THIS BLOG:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – RSC 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Headlong 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Filter 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Selladoor 2013
- A Midsummer Nights Dream – Handspring 2013, Bristol
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Grandage 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Globe 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Propellor 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016, ‘A Play for the Nation’ at Stratford (February)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016 Revisited Stratford, (July)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Globe 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – BBC TV SCREEN version 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Young Vic, 2017
LINKS ON THIS BLOG:
Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega (1631, Spanish), Ustinov Studio, Bath
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Cheek by Jowl , Nuffield, by John Ford
King Lear – David Haig Bath Theatre Royal (Edgar)
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, 2015 Brighton Theatre Royal / ETT at Bath
Monsieur Popular by Eugene Marin Labiche, Ustinov Studio, Bath