Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Southwark Playhouse)

My third Midsummer Night's Dream in less than a month, and there's been at least three other productions or adaptations in London recently that I could have booked but decided not to (plus a TV version I'm saving for when I'm a bit less Dreamed out.) The RSC called their version A Play For The Nation, and that seems apt enough as it might take the entire nation to cast all these productions. At least Simon Evans' at Southwark Playhouse requires less of a hefty cast list than usual, instead putting more pressure on each of its seven actors. Evans turns it into a play-within-a-play-within-a-play, the show opening with a cast using their own names and recreating the first scene with the Mechanicals - except instead of Pyramus and Thisbe, they're trying to figure out how to share out the 17 major roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream itself. Only Melanie Fullbrook gets just the one role as the cack-handed fairy Puck, who also serves as narrator, helping to fill in the gaps.

In the production's most traditional piece of doubling, Ludovic Hughes is a sexy Oberon stalking around the whole traverse auditorium, as well as Theseus, the Duke of Athens whose upcoming wedding kicks off some of the story's strands.

It's ironic that the director's note in the programme makes reference to wanting to bring out the dark side of the play: Theseus' lines about wooing Hippolyta by the sword and doing her injury are so commonly used to define him as a violent tyrant that I would say that's now the "traditional" interpretation of the play. I was only recently thinking that it's a long time since I saw a production acknowledge that he also clears the room, leaving the forbidden lovers Lysander (Freddie Hutchins) and Hermia (Suzie Preece) alone to plot their escape, and despite the programme's protestations to the opposite we get this acknowledgement here: Hughes is a nice-guy Theseus who clearly (with the help of some re-purposed lines) does this deliberately to help them.

In the sub-plot, Maddy Hill's Peter Quince organises the Mechanicals into an amateur performance for the royal wedding, only for the leading man, Bottom (Freddie Fox,) to be turned into a donkey by Puck and become the unwitting punchline in a prank on Fairy Queen Titania (also played by Hill.) With Fox doubling as Demetrius, Hutchins as Flute, Preece as Snug and Lucy Eaton as both Helena and Starveling, the play's climax of the Mechanicals performing in front of the lovers means almost everyone on stage is playing at least two characters at once, making for a frantic finale that sees the cast enlist members of the audience to fill in the gaps. Shakespeare at Southwark Playhouse never seems to find an audience - strong productions of The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It both played to roomfuls of tumbleweed, and on tonight's evidence even the prospect of seeing a member of the Fox acting dynasty before the nervous breakdown rather than during, hasn't been enough to compete with the bigger productions of the same play. It certainly needed a fuller room to really raise laughs, but looking across the traverse there seemed to be a lot of smiles (except for one woman in the front row who spent the two hours glaring at the cast with a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle, and maybe should have taken the opportunity to leave early when offered.)

Small-cast Shakespeare is hardly rare on the fringe of course, and while A Midsummer Night's Dream is a particularly tricky one to juggle, where this production fell down for me was in how pleased with itself it was at managing it with seven actors. Fullbrook's Puck is regularly required to tell the audience that it's impossible to carry on, and I think we could have been trusted to notice what an impressive job the actors are doing without constant reminders. The production also plays up its minimalist style to the hilt (I did like designer Adrian Linford putting Bottom in a donkey jacket) but tries to have its cake and eat it: I suspect what Evans really had in mind was a big-budget RSC production dominated by a huge tree, in which all four seasons take place in the course of the one night. The cast are constantly giving us detailed stage directions to this effect (the director has given himself and Shakespeare equal writing credit in the programme.) At times this invisible tree is used to good comic effect, and having Fox play Bottom's transformation as an overt piss-take of Bradley Cooper's self-indulgent Elephant Man is a cruel but entirely deserved dig. But overall despite sterling work from the cast I wished the production as a whole had spent more of its time working with what it had, than reminding us of what it didn't.

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare with additional material by Simon Evans is booking until the 1st of July at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Harry Grindrod.

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