The last work of art I watched on the topic of dreams was Inception, so compared to that Midsummer Night’s Dream should be a breeze. A slightly trippy one, admittedly, with strobe lighting, flying couches and multicoloured chairs suspended in mid-air. The programme helpfully pointed out that the process of dreaming often leads to the creative subconscious coming up with solutions to the problems that plague us in daylight. Hence it made sense in artistic as well as practical terms for the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta to be doubled as the feuding Oberon and Titania in the forest.
Theseus is about to wed the Queen of the Amazons, a scene that is generally assumed to be joyful, but in this production she sits on a white leather sofa smoking moodily and looking anything but content. Who can blame her, since her fiancee’s seduction technique includes lines like,
“I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries,”?
Matters deteriorate further when a citizen of Athens appeals to Theseus to read the riot act against his disobedient daughter, who has the temerity to want to marry the wrong man. Hippolyta is so disgusted by Theseus’s mysogenist response that she publicly spits in his face. The aesthetic is an underground car park, bleakly lit, crossed with Avengers’ style costumes – a lot of black boots and white leather. At this stage I wasn’t at all sure I was going to enjoy this production.
But the next sceme brings on the Rude Mechanicals, who give us an hilarious workshop in The Art of Very Coarse Acting. Lovely stage business here, particularly from an incurably pushy Bottom who really does fancy himself as a Great Tragic AC-TOR. And after that we’re in the forest, where Robin Goodfellow is all too willing to stir things up a little on Oberon’s behalf. He’s a mischievous spirit, after all, and dream-Theseus does have a few character parallels to day-Theseus, expressed mainly through his desire to win a bitter custody battle for Titania’s adopted son.
The new RSC theatre is growing on me now. Glorious things were done with the lighting throughout the forest scenes, creating a truly magical dramatic world where you felt anything could happen. Through this, the bickering quartet of lovers that I vaguely remember from school, Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia, become increasingly dishevelled and bewildered, culminating in the best cat fight in all Shakespeare when Helena (a brilliantly funny performance from Lucy Briggs-Owen) becomes convinced that everyone is ganging up on her, while Hermia (a gamine Matti Houghton) is rightly indignant that Lysander, under the influence of mistaken identity and a magic potion, has suddenly transferred his affections from her to Helena. It’s a delicious four-hander and went down a storm with the audience. Meanwhile, Titania’s infatuation with Bottom is both touching and hilarious.
In the final act, a beautifully realised dawn brings puzzled responses from everyone, wondering what the hell all that was about? As with other Shakespearian comedies, the final nuptials don’t quite resolve all the conflicts that have built up but another hilarious scene as the Mechanicals perform their show sets the seal on a delightfully entertaining evening.
Review: Daily Telegraph