A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
This a is a big concept production, an alliance between Bristol Old Vic and South African puppeteers, Handspring Theatre Company (who produced “The War Horse.”)
The puppets operate at different levels. Oberon and Titania hold static masks aloft in one hand, and Oberon has a huge mechanical hand in the other. The four lovers carry jointed dolls, about eighteen inches high, dressed identically to, and looking like the person carrying them. The rude mechanicals have blocks of wood with a crude carving at one end. The fairies use mechanical devices, which the programme describes as lost pieces of technology from a bygone age, inhabited and brought to life by the fairies. Thus Puck is three puppeteers operating a blowtorch, a basket, a saw and a short garden fork to create a disembodied floating effect, that sometimes looks like a chicken (well to me). Then the whole company operate as the forest with planks of wood. At the end, Theseus and Hippolyta enter huge statues with the Titania and Oberon masks on top and operate them.
So does it work? To the extent that it’s a fascinating theatrical experience, full of ideas, I suppose it does. As a rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the success is only partial. Let’s begin with the positive. The whole company is on stage most of the time in the forest scene with intricately choreographed work with long planks to create an ever living forest. That works at the five star level.
Then there are the fairies surrounding Titiana, which again are funny and magical. My companion thought that Puck worked at this level too, with three voices of the three puppeteers, as a fairy animating objects to create its presence. I’d take that a level down because it was confusing. But yes, that was all fascinating.
Titania with masks and forest of planks
Then I start to argue. Sometimes the lovers used their jointed dolls to comic effect. From the programme notes, and this was a post-show revelation to me, we’re supposed to be watching the puppets as principles with full size human “operators” on view. I couldn’t see it that way at all. To me they’re actors carrying dolls, and the dolls get in the way when they crouch behind them in the first scene with Aegeus. They do get comedy, or rather some jokes, from placing the dolls in position in the forest. All four lovers are first rate, but these are all great parts. Akiya Henry as Hermia deserves singling out, because she was such a short and ferocious Hermia that being bodily lifted about worked as well as it can. The lovers big scene was played with flat out action, as it has ever been A.B. (After Brooks), and there were great twists, and lying in a line on stage pulling each other was hilarious. It’s usually the best scene it the play. It was here … but note, this was the one place where they totally abandoned their puppets and it was a relief to focus simply on actors being the lovers and doing it s well.
Demetrius and Helena with jointed dolls (final versions look more like the actors’ hair)
Then there’s Titania and Oberon. Their first big forest scene was lost to both of us, because we couldn’t decide whether we were watching the mask held aloft or the actor holding it. The masks were a barrier to engaging with the actors. A definite ‘didn’t work’ for us. The hand was used to good effect, in picking up and dropping the cloth flower with the magic drops. Another good idea was that while people were under its spell, they had a bit of the cloth flower tied around them. The big statues which are used in a final solemn dance to music were excellent though.
Oberon with mask and mechanical hand
On to the rude mechnicals. Bottom was played by Miltos Yerolemou with a Middle-Eastern accent (which he didn’t use when doubling as Aegeus, nor when Bottom launched into Pyramus). His main puppet bit was when he was under the spell, which was one of the major “Yes!” parts of the production. He was strapped face down on a tricycle, with his naked bum pointing up, and ears attached to his feet. This led to some of the funniest bits with the fairies and with Titania, and made full use of the name Bottom. The rude mechanicals were also excellent in their early scenes when they were actors with plain blocks of wood (or not), In other words, they were more enjoyable without puppets.
By the Pyramus & Thisbe play-within-a-play they had blocks of wood with faces carved on the end, or rather Pyramus and Thisbe did. The play within a play was the point where I would have guessed they’d go into a full puppet show, which at least makes sense. They didn’t, but they used those two blocks of wood. The wall was the best and most original I’ve seen (I said that on the last production too. I like walls). He had a pile of bricks on top of a helmet on his head, and the assumed weight of the bricks kept overbalancing him one way then the other. The lion was played by Saikat Ahamed, who was also one of the three animating and voicing Puck. He was the smallest and slightest member of the cast, and was played as not speaking English when he was Snug. Very funny, and as Lion he had a doll’s pram with a metal kitchen colander as its head. Again, great. Pyramus and Thisbe? They used the blocks in the parts with wall (pulling his tights down too), but then abandoned them. They started well, but then both went surprisingly straight (well, as straight as you can given the lines) for dying. On balance, the rude mechanicals were better without puppets (except for the pram).
Ensemble cast with planks of wood
The production was full of ideas. The cutting was slightly different to most productions, with strong focus on Theseus’s final speeches and on Demetrius at the end of the forest scenes, which are sometimes truncated. Odd interspersed modern additions to lines were good. At times, with the moving planks of woods in particular, it was spectacularly good. At other times, the puppetry was annoying and got in the way of engagement. I’d rather have lost the puppets for the beginning, the four lovers and the rude mechanicals, but kept it for the magical forest scenes.
The Daily Telegraph said it was “Morris’s monumentally misguided and self-indulgent production.” I think that’s far too harsh. I’m delighted I saw it. I left confused, but fascinated. I thought that once they’d gone with the puppet idea it was allowed to take over and spread beyond the places (the forest) where it helped. I would have thought it best as marking the Athens / Forest divide, but in saying that I have a lingering guilty feeling that I was too thick to grasp the puppet language. But I didn’t regret going in the slightest, and would go again for the many things (including the entire live cast) that did work.
You’d have thought they were doing Macbeth by the luck. During the interval someone had a bad fall on the stairs to the Pit (i.e. stalls) and the interval had to be extended by nearly ten minutes because they had to bring the Pit audience in through the middle, clearing a row of people for access and lifting out a wood barrier. Then at the end of the lovers’ fight scene, a man in headphones rushed on and said that one of the cast had cut themselves and there would be a delay until they were patched up, and would the cast retire to the wings to wait. They did. House lights came on. We couldn’t see who had been injured and there were no visible bandages or plasters when it resumed.
THE BRISTOL OLD VIC
After a few worn-out West End theatres it’s such a joy to visit Bristol Old Vic, which I would rate as Britain’s finest historical theatre. The old theatre interior is an intimate space, but surrounded by spacious public areas, decent loos, a large coffee area.
First-rate. Essays on the concept and puppetry and on the play itself. I don’t like the plain white embossed cover. We keep every programme and I can see me pulling this out of a box in a few years and wondering what it is.
REVIEWS OF OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on this blog:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – BBC TV SCREEN version 2016