A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
29th September 2011, matinee
Directed by Nancy Meckler
Theseus / Oberon – Jo Stone-Fewings
Hippolyta / Titania – Pippa Nixon
Puck / Philostrate – Arsher Ali
Hermia – Matti Houghton
Helena – Lucy Briggs-Owen
Lysander – Nathaniel Martello-White
Demetrius – Alex Hassell
Egeus – Kammy Darweish
Bottom – Marc Wooton
Quince – Christopher Godwin
Flute – Michael Grady-Hall
Snout – Chiké Okonkwo
Snug – Felix Hayes
Starveling – Tomothy Speyer
You’d expect the full-cast, all bells and whistles with trap doors, flying etc. You got it. This is the Cardenio / The City Madam company we had seen earlier. A Midsummer Night’s Dream works so well of its own accord that you know it’ll be thoroughly enjoyable, and it is.
You know there has to be a thematic twist. In this case, the programme sets out the first few lines of the play in detail. Theseus, Duke of Athens, has conquered Hippolyta, who is Queen of the Amazons ‘by sword.’ Understandably she resents this, and Queens of the Amazons are tough.These few lines usually drift by. Here they set the theme.
The theme is to set the outer play in the 1960s, with Theseus ruling like a gangland boss, Hippolyta as a resentful conquered moll. The idea of the godfather figure dispensing summary justice fits the position of a Shakesperean duke perfectly. As it opens, with the guys in slick narrow lapel Italian suits, it looks like a sleazy run-down club with tarts in basques, suspenders and stockings in the background (they mutate into the fairies, and later into girl singers) and henchmen to threaten. Hermia and Helena are dressed in mid 60s, Mary Quant or BIBA.
The 60s setting for Athens is topical (the dubious politicos who have near destroyed the euro run the place). It also makes the magical dream centre of the play more contrastive. As usual, Theseus doubles as Oberon, Hipployta as Titania, Philostrate as Puck. Theseus switches from Kray Bros Boss with East End accent, to Fairy Prince as Oberon. According to Wikipedia, Peter Brook introduced the doubling of these parts in his classic 1970 production. It’s so obvious to reflect the world of Athens onto the dream world, that I can’t think I’ve seen it done any other way since. Given that they’re never seen at the same time, I’d conclude that Brook restored what was always meant to be. The relationships follow through, most clearly of all here where a dance sequence transforms Oberon back into Theseus, and Titania back into Hippolyta centre stage. I had to look up earlier productions to believe they used to be done as separate roles.
Oberon (Jo Stone-Fewings) and Titania (Pippa Nixon) with changeling
The lighting enhances all the “dream” sequences and is of the highest standard (designed by Wolfgang Gobbel). If there were a prize for theatrical lighting, he deserves it this year. As the fairies (all brilliant) walk away from Titania, the lighting down-projects magical wings which steadily move with them. It’s an athletic productions, fairies and sprites dart across stage, there’s a lot of dance and action. The fairies are electrical in their impact. They fizz and pop. The changeling scene was well-done. All the fairies seemed to have a babe in arms which disappears into a strip of cloth when Oberon’s sprites try to take it. Titania’s bundle glowed magically.
Helena (Lucy Briggs-Owen). all tattered and torn
The 60s setting makes for a huge and dominating role. Lucy Briggs-Owen as Helena is the star of the show. She plays her as a gawky 60s red-haired prototype of the Sloane Ranger. She is hilarious, and makes Helena one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic roles. An outstanding performance. I’ve seen brilliant Helenas, but none as innovative and original as this. In the wood, with her clothes destroyed, she’s absent-mindedly scratching at her bites and scratches throughout. Even in the opening scene, before she appears, she’s hovering uncertainly high up on the metal steps at the back.
Otherwise? Well, this 2011 production eschews the years when Puck was the lead character. In John Caird’s spectacular 1989 production, Richard McCabe’s punk fairy Puck stole the show. In the 1968 film version, it was Ian Holm as Puck. John Kane (Peter Brooks 1970), Mickey Rooney (1935 Hollywood film) and Stanley Tucci (1999 film) are other memorable Pucks. As in all recent productions I’ve seen. Puck returns to a minor role. Arsher Ali, as Puck, shines best at the end when he is Theseus’s aide, Philostrate, and describes the potential entertainments by microphone. Otherwise he’s a more subdued Puck. Puck and Oberon are a double act. If the balance of the production goes to Oberon, Puck has to fit in, and the role lessens. Then add a sprite racing around crouched double, and another potential aspect of Puck has gone. Ali did the closing Puck speech extremely well.
Demetrius (Alex Hassell) and Lysander (Nathaniel Martello-White) restrain Hermia (Matti Houghton)
The lovers are hampered by the “big-ness” of Helena. At least they totally re-choreographed the major second half scene. I reckon they have three costumes each as they progressively get tattered and torn in the forest. Hermia’s orange floral sleeping bag is a hilarious prop for drifting to sleep in the forest while fending Lysander off. Earlier this year, Headlong did the four lovers argument / fight superbly, but were also obviously echoing the Peter Brooks production.
A bit of controversial casting. Egeus, who wants his daughter, Hermia, killed if she declines to follow his wishes is cast as Kammy Darweish, who looks Pakistani or Arab.
Bottom (Marc Wooton) and Titania (Pippa Nixon)
So to Headlong, earlier in 2011. They had the best Bottom I’ve ever seen, better even than Patrick Troughton as Bottom (John Caird’s production 1989). Christopher Logan for Headlong did Bottom as Kenneth Williams might have envisaged him. He had the charisma not of an actor, but of a comedy star like Rick Mayall or Rowan Atkinson. That’s a hard act to follow. Marc Wooton garnered the accolades in other reviews of this. He worked his socks off as an East End Bottom. He was a wonderful Bottom, but not an unexpected Bottom (as Logan was).
The “Rude Mechanicals” were also a fabulous, but conventional, interpretation. With Headlong, the audience were crying with laughter in Pyramus and Thisbe. In Stratford everyone was laughing, but no one near me had tears running down their cheeks. These RSC rude mechanicals ticked every box, extracted every nuance of comedy from a LONG Pyramus and Thisbe. Great and surprising entrance. The circling (as if on the rotating stage at the London Paladium, mid 60s) was brilliant. The lion being out of synch in the circling was brilliant. The lion’s noisy feet? Brilliant. The wall was as good as I’ve ever seen. The lantern’s reaction to lordly criticism was brilliant. The snogging scene (I’ll say no more) was brilliant. No one has worked harder as Bottom, or with better costume than Marc Wooton. They’d seen the Headlong, I think … Bottom delivered a section of lines as Kenneth Williams. Yes, every box was ticked … but in spite of all that, Headlong were more entertaining and funnier with a stripped down cast and doubling up. No question. And Headlong had the pop songs, and Headlong had the Hollywood film concept.
A criticism. We had separate seats in the circle; the only way we could get tickets a mere three months in advance. I could see the six aristocratic observers in Pyramus and Thisbe, right out in the audience, two on each corner walkway, Theseus and Hippolyta, in the audience aisle. My companion, fifteen seats away but more central, saw neither head nor tail of any them. Their reactions are important. They were lost to a proportion of the audience by their placing.
So a major production. A great version all round. The best Helena ever. Possibly the best Theseus, along with John Carlisle in the John Caird 1989 production. The fairies were more magical than human. But it’s not in my top three, and the humbler Headlong is (though third).
GRATUITOUS SMOKING NOTE
I’d given up on these. Philostrate is the only person to light up, both at the beginning and at the end. The actor studiously avoided inhaling. It added nothing.
REVIEWS OF OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on this blog: