Thursday, 19 September 2013

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Michael Grandage Company at the Noël Coward Theatre)

One of the big theatrical events of 2013, the Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward is already nearing its end with the first of the two Shakespeare plays that conclude the residency.

The star casting for A Midsummer Night's Dream sees Sheridan Smith as Titania and David Walliams as Bottom, but the cast also includes a nice bit of continuity with the rest of the season so far, with one cast member returning from each of the previous productions: From The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pádraic Delaney plays Oberon; from Peter and Alice, Stefano Braschi plays Demetrius; and from Privates on Parade, Sam Swainsbury plays Lysander.

On the eve of a royal wedding, two warring couples flee to the forest, and a group of tradesmen use it to rehearse their amateur dramatics. But in Grandage's production and Christopher Oram's designs, it's not the supernatural that decides to have a little fun with these visitors to the woods: Here the "fairies" become a group of hippies at a festival, their magic love potions drugs slipped under the mortals' tongues.

In a season built around star casting, A Midsummer Night's Dream stands out a bit, a play with multiple threads all of which are capable of providing the big laughs, so it tends to be best when built around an ensemble. In terms of the talent on show - we also have Susannah Fielding as Hermia and Katherine Kingsley as Helena - that's what we get, but somehow the production has neither utilised the full cast to their best not really put its stars completely in the spotlight.

I should probably warn now that this review may come across more negative than I actually felt about the production. This is still an extremely watchable take on the play, but it's one whose negative points merit a bit more comment than its positives. There's one major factor influencing everything that's both wrong and right about this Dream, and that's its length. I've been grumbling for a while about the recent trend for overlong Shakespeare productions and Grandage certainly bucks it, but at 2 hours 20 minutes including interval he may have gone too far the other way. There are text cuts, well-executed ones that don't detract from the story or action, but a lot of the overall brevity is, quite simply, down to the lines being rushed.

The opening scene of Theseus and Hippolyta meeting the lovers for the first time is done at breakneck speed, and it's no surprise there's so few laughs - however well-versed you are in Shakespeare you still need the funny lines to be delivered properly, and by the time a joke has registered the cast are already several lines further on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's the lovers, whose plot barely intersects with the star casting, who feel the most neglected by Grandage. They zoom through their earlier scenes with little chance to establish characters, with only Kingsley, channeling Doon Mackichan in her Helena, getting to suggest the character's comically deranged side.

The other three do at least get their moment in the storyline's funniest scene where both men's affections get chemically switched from Hermia to Helena, and any staging that sees Big Favourite Round These Parts Sam Swainsbury wrestling topless with an underwear-clad Braschi is going to get a thumbs-up from me. What's surprising is that this brisk treatment of one story hasn't really foregrounded the others. Of the names on the poster, Smith is particularly badly served; Titania's scenes with Bottom are the focus, but it means there's zero chemistry, or indeed any feel of a relationship at all, with Delaney's underpowered Oberon.

The most interesting character choices are with the rude mechanicals, although this is largely down to the fact that with the best will in the world - and he is very good at what he does - Walliams does basically have one string to his bow. That string being an ungainly camp performance reminiscent of Frankie Howerd, so this is what drives the interpretation of Bottom to fully embrace his drama queen side. It does make for some interesting dynamics though, as we're clearly meant to infer a relationship between him and Richard Dempsey's fussy Peter Quince, while Bottom isn't above getting touchy-feely with the rest of the mechanicals - not entirely surprising when they look like Alex Large's Flute and Craig Vye's Snug.

The cast's good looks also come in handy when the mechanicals double as the fairies, making for a very masculine train of shirtless muscular men to wait on Smith's spliff-smoking Titania, led by Gavin Fowler's Puck. And the sexuality of the piece is another of the things the production gets right for the most part, not holding back on the lovers' dry-humping or the hint of an orgy to the sweaty group of hippyish fairies. So there's much to enjoy here, but also a huge amount that's been thrown out along with the missing 30-40 minutes of running time: Much of the comedy, unfortunately, is among what's missing, as well as character development and any hint of darker subtext (or course after Matthew Dunster's production last year I think that subtext has probably been explored enough for a while.)

With one of the Michael Grandage Season's stated aims being to bring newcomers to the theatre, this could well be the thinking behind this Dream: A sort of primer production, not long enough to make Shakespeare virgins balk at the prospect of 3 hours in the theatre, but putting across the story clearly enough and hitting some of the major comic beats. If that was the intention this must surely be counted as a big success. People previously unfamiliar with A Midsummer Night's Dream will come out of this knowing it's a good, funny play. But they won't know quite how good or funny it actually is.

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare is booking until the 16th of November at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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