2 March 2019
In his programme notes, Director Mike Tweddle says “..we’ve discovered a very political and dramatic story. There is so much at stake for the characters, who live in a society that is harsh and problematic. We wanted to make these high stakes as palpable as possible for a modern audience, so we’ve placed the story in a dystopian imagining of a near-future Britain. We’ve also changed the gender of certain characters, in order to make more resonant their quest to love and to be loved by whomever they choose. Sadly, in 2019 it’s all too easy to see how our politically fragile society could lose its hard-won social values and justice.”
I am sorry, but I am not sure I have ever read such trite nonsense in my life. That said, how did these thoughts translate into this new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
A prologue sees Hippolyta enter with a gun, followed by a group of masked gunmen with torches. Having identified her, Hippolyta is apprehended and taken away. Just prior to the final words of Puck at the end of the play, Hippolyta appears to take a gun and shoot her husband, Theseus. Nothing that happens in the intervening time gives any explanation to this, or, if it does, it is so buried in the subtext as to be invisible.
At the beginning of the play the set comprises 4 material covered pillars, a canopy of bunting, a large red carpet, a sofa and easy chair. Theseus is playing to an audience as he shares his excitement about his forthcoming wedding. When the Fairies appear, the drapings are removed and the seats replaced with tattered versions, the canopy is exposed as one of broken window panes and the carpet removed to expose a decaying tiled floor. Is this dystopian Britain? The Fairies are dressed like a cross between Game of Thrones and cavemen, all skins and fur – magical they are not.
Titania arrives in an old bath delivered on stage, courtesy of a forklift trolley – something that happens a lot and becomes increasingly tiresome. Oberon comes over as a South London market trader and has a shaking fit on administering his various potions.
I cannot work out where the ‘near-future Britain’ fits in here. There is no suggestion of the future in the Mechanicals, who seem entirely ordinary, or in the quartet of lovers either. On the subject of the Lovers – this is where we do some sex changes. So, male character, Lysander, becomes female, Lysanda, in love with (female) Hermia; and female character, Helena, becomes male, Helenus, in love with (male) Demetrius. By the end of the play we have two same-sex couples getting married. A couple of extra titters from the audience are gleaned from this alteration – mainly when seeing the couples kiss – nothing else is achieved.
The Mechanicals are the usual rag-bag with some played by female actors – not sure if they were played as male or female to be honest – maybe it doesn’t matter.
I have seen countless productions of this play and performed in it half a dozen times – another programme note says how the Company came to the play with fresh eyes, forgetting productions they had seen or been in before – it might have been wise to find have pinched some comedy ideas. The audience laughed, but not exactly heartily. You need some invention and some imagination to create the laughs and there just weren’t enough. At one point, Bottom (complete with ear-adorned crash helmet) enters in the bath with Titania who appears to be performing oral sex on the ass – a lurch into coarseness entirely at odds with the rest of the production and a seemingly desperate search for a cheap laugh.
The actors speak the verse well and commit to their roles. They have a lot to do, many playing three characters. Kim Heron is an effective and athletic Puck, singing well and with a cheeky glint in the eye. Luca Thompson in the oft-doubled roles of Oberon and Theseus has a powerful stage presence and Charleen Qwaye is a statuesque Hippolyta (with a strange French (?) accent) but an unsensual Titania. Heather Williams is a wide-eyed and chirpy Bottom but I just didn’t find her remotely amusing. Paksie Vernon was a strong Hermia and nicely nervy Starveling. Evlyne Oyedokun created a passionate Lysanda and a terrified Snug and Danann McAleer was an effectively angry and disappointed Egeus and a well-meaning Quince. For me, the best two performers on stage were Joseph Tweedale as Helenus and Snout – clear of voice and some lovely comic work with his shoes and socks – and Dan Wheeler who was impressive as Demetrius and really very funny as Flute – his death scene and business with his short dress was genuinely very funny – thank you!
I have no problems with directors placing classic plays in different eras and locations, but along with the designer, they must commit fully to it. This production set it’s stall out in the quoted programme notes and then failed dismally to see them through in any aspect. Yes, I understand the need to sometimes shave down the script for purposes of length and this was done well here to accommodate the multiple role playing. Is there really a need to change sex and sexuality with abandon? Does it make “more resonant their quest to love and to be loved by whomever they choose” – no it doesn’t. It just makes it another example of trying to show ‘inclusivity’ and ‘modernity’. To those who may have been seeing the play for the first they will now have an opinion of what Shakespeare wrote and that wouldn’t be correct. Do director’s think they can do better than the Bard and so alter character and text at a whim? Is the original script not good enough? And what was all that nonsense with Hippolyta and the gun? Misjudged, unnecessary and utterly pointless.
The actors work their socks off but are poorly served by director and designer whose ideas are badly executed. It’s neither a magical or funny production which fails on so many levels. A hugely wasted opportunity which serves the writer poorly.
Puck – Kim Heron
Egeus/Quince/Cobweb – Danaan McAleer
Lysanda/Snug/Moth – Evlyne Oyedokun
Titania/Hippolyta – Charleen Qwaye
Oberon/Theseus – Luca Thompson
Helenus/Snout/Peaseblossom – Joseph Tweedale
Hermia/Starveling/Mustardseed – Paksie Vernon
Demetrius/Flute/Fairy – Dan Wheeler
Bottom – Heather Williams
Director – Mike Tweddle
Designer – Anna Reid
Lighting Design – Chris Swain
Composer & Sound Design – Max Perryment
Composer – Kim Heron
Costume Supervisor – Ruby Makin