Twelfth Night, last year saw A Midsummer Night's Dream even more overexposed than usual, so I was approaching it with some trepidation. Added to that was the publicity promising a particularly dark approach to the play, a cliché that can usually be taken as meaning "we failed to actually make it funny," and in any case the nightmare flipside of the Dream is frequently-explored territory. In the runup to a royal wedding Hermia (Jemima Rooper) and Lysander (John Dagleish,) whose love is forbidden, escape the threat of death by fleeing to the forest. They're pursued by Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson,) in love with Hermia, and Helena (Anna Madeley,) in love with Demetrius.
They don't realise the forest houses powerful spirits Oberon (Michael Gould) and Titania (Anastasia Hille,) who are in the middle of an argument over a changeling; the four lovers get inadvertantly caught up in the magic, which drastically alters their personalities.
Joe Hill-Gibbins' production hasn't so much failed to find the comedy as, in all but a handful of scenes, deliberately not looked for it. Only the subplot of a group of labourers rehearsing a play keeps something of the joy the play can manage, and even that's largely down to Aaron Heffernan, once again proving a hugely talented comic actor, whose Flute maintains a butch swagger and flirtation with the women in the audience at odds with the fact that he's meant to be playing a damsel in distress.
But Bottom's (Leo Bill) transformation is a particularly grotesque one, and the production subverts this and other moments of happiness in the play by having the characters run around in a confused panic afterwards. Part of what set me against the production so much was the staging: Johannes Schütz' set is a semicircular thrust filled with mud that the actors struggle to walk through; I was at the front and to the side, and Hill-Gibbins' blocking of the actors has a tendency to put them all in straight line downstage centre, meaning the actor on the end blocked my view of everything going on. In the leadup to the climactic play-within-a-play, Michael Gould visibly paused in the position he'd stood in, noticing that he was in the way of the audience's sightline and moving to the side. A thoughtful thing for the actor to do, but the show's out of previews now and it's really something that should have been spotted long before now by the creatives. The fact that the actors all stay on stage throughout is also quite clumsily done - especially early on when Alvin-Wilson is standing right in the middle of a scene that Demetrius should under no circumstances be privy to. I'm not sure how anyone unfamiliar with the play would be able to infer that he's not in the room listening to Hermia's plan to escape him.
In the end I think what bugged me the most was exactly what I was most concerned about going in: Exploring the play's dark subconscious is presented as a hot take but in truth it would struggle to melt a Magnum. The muddy stage throws back to a famous National Theatre production from 1992, the undertone of sexual violence was brought up more effectively by Matthew Dunster's 2012 Dream at Regent's Park, and Theseus' court as a dangerous dictatorship is touched on by... well, 90% of productions. I normally have a rule against comparing to specific past productions of a play but if novelty is the main selling point I think it's fair to point out ideas that aren't as fresh as they think. There's definitely dark aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream that can be enlightening to pick up on but it's not a new concept, and sadly in going looking for them Hill-Gibbins has dispensed with the play's usual strengths without finding new ones to take their place.
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare is booking until the 1st of April at the Young Vic.
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Keith Pattison.