A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Michael Grandage Season
Noel Coward Theatre, London
Directed by Michael Grandage
This was the fourth in the season and a major star production with David Walliams as Bottom and Sheridan Smith as Titania. The production is advertised as two hours and twenty minutes with a fifteen minute interval. I’d say the interval was nearer twenty and we were on the street by 4.45, so one hour 55 minutes by my watch, and that includes several minutes of David Walliams as Pyramus dying, decent dance routines and lots of applause. That means a very short, heavily cut production, which means pace is paramount. So paramount that I thought it cut to Classics Illustrated level. That’s deliberate. A key concept for the Michael Grandage Company is providing 100,000 tickets for the 15 month season at £10 each, queue on the day. They claim the star name concept has brought in 25% first time theatre visitors. The astonished laughter at several points in the production showed that some wonderful bits of the play were new to people. It’s a laudable concept, and it has been mentioned that eventually they hope to sell future seasons on their own merits rather than on participating stars. But the popular names bring people in, and this cuts the play to its proven best bits. It also rebalances the five threads: the Athens frame story, the four lovers, the forest, the rude mechanicals rehearsing, the Pyramus & Thisbe play within a play.
We’re in the modern day, starting in a subdued Athens with grey and beige smart, uptight clothes. Once we get to the forest the first-rate set (designed by Christopher Oram) opens up, and the surround is a ruined classical palace with blue murals of a forest on the walls. The back wall has collapsed in a circle through which we see a huge photographic full moon. The set and costumes (also by Oram) are such a strong point that as with the rest of the season, Grandage has been parsimonious with production photos online. At the point of writing five days in, there were none (I’m adding them as they appear). The sets and costumes are a surprise and a thrill, and they are keeping that for the theatre.
The programme has notes on the Burning Man festival in Nevada, and that’s the major concept. The fairies are wild hippies with bare chests and headbands, with Titania and Oberon as their leaders, and Puck as a bare chested hippie henchman in cut off jeans with tassled edges that make him Pan-like. He’s also the curly-headed smiling Pasolini boy in all those 60s Italian films.
Does it work? In this part, superbly. The fairies have dance and music on their side, and vigour and energy. At its centre is Sheridan Smith’s Titania, a totally wild spirit in floating Janis Joplin garments, massive spliff in hand, an earthy dervish among whirling stomping dervishes. She’s surely the best Titania I’ve seen, as well as the sexiest, even though she plays against a pretty sexless interpretation of Bottom. Sheridan Smith also has full-on charisma on stage at a rare level. As Hippolyta she’s in tight grey formal skirt suit, and hardly gets a word in (most of her lines are cut) which makes for a powerful contrast. Titania is usually secondary to Hermia and Helena in productions, and it can be a rather wet role. Not here. It’s the powerful centerpiece.
Sheridan Smith as Titania
So to David Walliams. I disliked Little Britain mildly, and disliked Come Fly With Me a lot. Conversely, I think the current sitcom, Big School, on its first run as this opens, is very good, and the reviews disparage it by comparing it to 1970s sitcoms, but 1970s sitcoms are surely the peak of the genre. Walliams’ science teacher Mr Church is a brilliant creation. He was cast as Bottom. I’ve seen camp theatrical Bottoms (Christopher Logan for Headlong was so easily the best) and dumb rustic Bottoms. This was not only a camp theatrical Bottom complete with pink shirt and cravat, but a also a gay one skipping off twice hand in hand with Peter Quince (who was very funny, watching jealously as Bottom touched the future Thisbe’s face). Is simply mincing around hand on hip necessarily funny nowadays? I never found it so on Little Britain. The Rude Mechanicals scenes were built around Walliams proven comic ability. He’s good, too, as comedians usually are when they turn to theatre. His fan club were amply present on the matinee whooping and screaming with laughter at every raised eyebrow. Most people think he channels Frankie Howard, but once he had the outsize teeth in, as the ass, it was more Ken Dodd. As Pyramus he changes his coiffeured reddy-brown hair to black.
Bottom as the ass
But as an ass, he’s not fantastic except for the “stoned” scene, and the Pyramus & Thisbe play was too centred on him without enough good other business. They relied on elaborate costumes, and everyone standing in a row. The costumes while elaborate, were carefully aged and slightly tatty as if the players had rented them in from an old fancy dress shop. You can’t lose by having a famous actor come on in a Roman / Greek skirt and breastplate, then ham it up for England, as Morecambe and Wise proved regularly. But Pyramus and Thisbe is supposed to be like that, so this is the original rather than the modern automatic laugh scene. It was good, and to the 25% (a figure I don’t believe) seeing it for the first time, the play within a play was hilarious. BUT if you’ve seen a few, there was nothing new, just same old executed well. Not a Pyramus & Thisbe to remember. I’ve seen half a dozen I do remember. Having said that, he never tried to scene-steal (as famous comedians might) and always appeared to be working for the whole and waiting his moments.
Bottom gets stoned
The lovers were excellent. We’ve seen both women on stage recently. Susannah Fielding was as fiery a Hermia as you could ask for (see the link for review of her as Kim in All New People) and Katherine Kingsley as tall and gauche a Helena (see link to Relative Values, just two months ago where she played Miranda ). I’ve now seen so many productions where Hermia and Helena are superb that you have to put it down to the script. The difference this time is that all four end up in their underwear … the lads get stripped by the girls, the girls disrobe. So many trousers fall to the ground that Brian Rix joins the cast of remembered comedians with Walliams’s Howard, Dodds, Eric and Ernie … and his touch of Dick Emery. The physical stuff is great. A casual sudden side kick by Helena goes straight to the balls. Hermia grabs the balls and squeezes. It’s choreographed with aplomb, but since Peter Brook, 45 years ago, you expect to see Hermia leaping on people’s backs and being tossed about. You need great actresses. They’ve got them.
Katherine Kingsley as Helena
Demetrius and Lysander play perfectly against them. The buffed torsos of Demetrius, Lysander, Puck and Oberon display hours of work in the gym as well as subtle tattoo work. The stripping to underpants reveal tight white spotless items. They must be using Carefree pads or forbidding the actors any liquid during the production.
At some point a scholarly tome will appear on “The Spliff in Shakespeare in the 2010s” Ken Key Sea (Arnold Layne Press 2014). Hippies are popular … the RSC had prominent spliffs in The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It. Titania and the Fairies wave one, and fortunately for the actors, there’s a lot of apparent smoke but no sign of the smell of tobacco, or herbal smoking mixture. In row B we guessed it was an electronic device producing an odourless grey mist that could be inhaled and blown around. This production adds the flower to the druggy ambience. A flower patterned blotting paper, which squares can be detached from, is the magic potion, here as a hallucinogen.
Where the spliff was used to hilarious effect is the scene where Bottom is transformed into the ass, and learns the fairies’ names. As he runs from Peasblossom on, he is passed the joint and gradually dissolves into giggles at the names, ending up with Mustard Seed. It makes some sense of an otherwise ponderous bit of prose. Then everyone got stoned and joined in on the Ee-Aws from Bottom. That was another ‘that was the best way of doing that scene’ reaction from us. On smoke, at the end when Titania and Oberon reappear after the play within a play, the cast of hippie fairies have Native American smudging sticks, so right to the Nevada desert / Burning Man theme.
A decision was made not to force rhymes … like”eyes” and “fantas-eyes”. We got “eyes” and a straight “fantas -ease.” There are several of these in the play. Some productions do the rhymes straight, others with a nod and a wink. This just eschewed them altogether.
A growing cliché is having an African or Arab looking actor playing the vengeful dad, Aegeus. It’s supposed to be colour blind, but the concept of honour killing sits uncomfortably – it’s in the text after all. Also, Hermia doesn’t look his daughter which I find odd, but at least it’s only one parent. It was an extremely good Aegeus anyway.
Titania’s bower is a rusting ornate staircase
The main memories will be the hippies / Puck / Titania concept, with of course, four excellent lovers. A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes three out of four clear major successes for the Grandage season so far … Peter and Alice must have looked good when they commissioned it, but turned out to be such a dire play that even such a great director couldn’t make it watchable.
Was it the Dream as we know it? It takes time to process this one. The first level of reaction is ‘very good but populist,’ and that’s not a problem. Shakespeare milked the attraction of star actors like Richard Burbage as much as he could. The bard would have cast Walliams. The more we discussed it, the more we think Grandage found an essence in the play. Driving home, we thought it four star. A day’s discussion ups that to a clear five, and the difference is the magic fairy dust Sheridan Smith sprinkles all over it.
Some excellent original stuff. My normal complaint … no credit for used music. ‘Touch Me When We’re Dancing” got played in its entirety while Titania and Oberon reunited dance together. It fitted, but The Carpenters are ten years too late for the mood.
Why it was worth getting permission for just ‘Hello darkness my old friend …’ as a snatch from The Sound of Silence, I don’t know.
REVIEWS OF OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on this blog:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – BBC TV SCREEN version 2016