Theater Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

As part of the 400th birthday celebrations for William Shakespeare, the Royal Shakespeare Company has just started performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With a subtitle, A Play for the Nation, the RSC is positioning this as the defining production for this year’s festivities. The big selling point for this version of the well-known comedy is the fact that the RSC is working with 14 amateur theater groups, and 58 groups of children, who will perform along with the RSC’s actors in a dozen different venues around the UK.

These amateur actors play the parts of the “Mechanicals,” a group of actors who perform a play within the play. Each group will perform in the venue near where they are based, and they will also get a chance to perform at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Last night’s production was the press night (or opening night), and featured a local group called The Nonentities, whose performances proved that the name certainly isn’t accurate.

Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons are to be married. Egeus wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, yet she loves Lysander. Hermia and Lysander want to marry, against the wishes of Hermia’s father, and decide to elope, and head off into the forest. Puck, the trickster, instructed by Oberon, gives his love, Titania, as well as Lysander and Demetrius, a potion that makes each one fall in love with the first being they see when they wake up. Titania falls for Bottom (one of the Mechanicals), after Puck has turned his head into that of an ass. And Helena loves Demetrius, but he is the one Hermia’s father wants his daughter to marry. Puck enters into this fray, drugging the lovers, and confusing the couples.

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(Photos: Topher McGillis for the RSC.)

As with other Shakespearean comedies, much of the intrigue here involves the mistaken feelings between these latter couples, and, in particular, how Helena feels they’re all just playing with her. In the end, Oberon has Puck sort things out, and the two couples marry, as do Theseus and Hippolyte, who only appear in the first scene of the play and the long final scene. There’s a lot of rom-com going on here, and it gets a bit confusing.

In the press night performance, the first 45 minutes or so dragged. The actors didn’t seem comfortable in the first few scenes, and the Mechanicals’ scenes aren’t the most interesting. But things took off in the penultimate scene before the intermission (III.2), where the two couples (Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius) enter into the confusing conflict of who really loves whom (and, remember, there are drugs here to spice up the plot). The comic timing in this scene is brilliant, and it features plenty of physical acting, keeping the long scene very lively. There’s even a huge laugh when Lysander says “Get you gone, you dwarf.” One of the fairies – Mustardseed, played by Ben Goffe – is, as I guess you say now, “vertically challenged.” At this line, he runs out from the back of the stage, spanks Lysander, then runs across the stage, out across one of the voms. The audience was in stitches at this joke, and it reinforced the slapstick nature of this scene.

Alas, the rest of the play doesn’t maintain the same energy. I found the interaction between Titania and Bottom to be drab. Titania’s bower was the top of a piano, and there was little eroticism in the scene that features the two of them and the fairies. Contrasted with the rest of the play, it seemed to be filler. And the scenes where the Mechanicals were preparing for their play weren’t very interesting; it’s no fault of the actors, it’s just that these scenes feature a lot of exposition, and not much bite.

The high point of the second part of the evening was the final scene, where the amateur actors, performing a play entitled The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe, almost upstaged the professional company. Sure, the acting was camp and hammy, but it worked very well, and had the audience laughing a great deal. Not that the RSC’s own actors were inferior; while most of them are performing with the RSC for the first time, they’re all excellent, but the amateurs do get one of the better parts of the play. Much credit to to Chris Clarke, as Bottom, who plays Pyramus, and Alex Powell as Thisbe, for their death scenes at the end of the play.

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In addition to the amateur actors, there is a group of children, who sing a song in the first part of the play, and share some lines near the end (though not very well) that are usually spoken by Oberon. There’s a song and dance number at the end as well, and the entire play is infused with 40s jazzy tunes. In fact, the design is apparently based on a post-World War II bombed out theater, which wasn’t apparent, though Egeus does wear an RAF uniform (the only costume suggesting this setting). A lot of the design and direction feels cobbled together, with juxtapositions that didn’t seem obvious. In fact, if I hadn’t read the Guardian review, I wouldn’t have known that “The dust left by bombs is replaced by the vivid colours of the Hindu festival Holi, the sound of destruction by the jazzy beat of a new era as spring arrives in a shower of rose petals.” It seems that the director and designer were a bit too clever.

Most of the acting was excellent, in spite of the time it took for things to take off. Puck was truculently played by Lucy Ellinson, whose tuxedo and top hat recalled Liza Minelli in Cabaret, and whose exaggerated facial expressions at times seemed a bit much. Chu Omambala’s Oberon was suave and subtle, exuding the energy of the character very well. Of the lovers, Laura Riseborough’s Helena was refreshing and complex, though all four of the young lovers were excellent.

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While this isn’t one of the best RSC productions I’ve seen, the two scenes – the one with the two pairs of lovers in the first part of the play, and the amateurs’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end – make this production worth seeing. I have a feeling that everyone tried too hard to make this play contain everything, and it doesn’t succeed. A play with highs and lows like this may be less disappointing than one which stays in the middle all the way through, but I certainly felt that it was an enjoyable evening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is running through July 16, 2016, and is performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and a dozen other venues. Unlike the other Shakespeare productions the RSC has been putting on recently, this one will not be filmed and broadcast to cinemas.