Midsummer Night’s Dream, Novello Theatre, 7th Feb 2009.
The RSC are having a more comic season following the weighty Histories cycle last year, but this series feels a lot more hit and miss. I saw seven of the eight histories (and by all accounts the one I didn’t see, Richard III, was the best), and thought them all good with some flashes of brilliance. This season, I have approached the theatre a lot more cautiously than the eager excitement I settled into the Courtyard balcony, and after a disappointing Othello the previous weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the RSC’s Dream.
It was a hard act to follow given that the last Dream I saw was Tim Supple’s superlative Indian production, and since I pretty much know the play off by heart I was prepared to enjoy myself but not be dazzled. However, I took my French housemate as a Christmas present, and she had never seen the play before, and indeed had only seen one Shakespeare play in the theatre – the ADC’s pretentious Hamlet. She adored this production and chuckled her way through the full three hours, and reminded me of the sheer joy that theatre can, and should, bring. I love Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was the first Shakespeare I read, and I remember the animated version with a blue-haired Titania vividly. This production managed to be fresh and genuinely funny in a way that few manage.
Edward Bennett was fantastic as a buttoned-up Demetrius, whose neat composure unraveled as the spell of the woods took its toll. Natalie Walker’s Helena was a librarian-ish, cardigan-ed, much-maligned woman, and managed to be both funny and pathetic. Tom Davey’s Lysander got a laugh just by sauntering onto the stage looking cool, and he provided an excellent foil to Bennett’s up-tight Demetrius. It was unusually clear why Keith Osborn’s blustering, chauvinistic Egeus preferred Demetrius to Lysander; the latter could have passed for a stoned student. It was unclear, however, why Kathryn Drysdale’s unsympathetic and bitchy Hermia should fall for him. Her first entrance, dragged onstage by her father, and subjected to some pretty violent actions and words, immediately prompted sympathy, but her flouncing and fastidious whingeing in the woods reduced her to a spoiled child who couldn’t have what she wanted.
The changes wrought upon the unsuspecting mortals in the woods were well done, with normal civil relations beginning to disintegrate, although I felt this could have been pushed further. The bare set and creepy fairies weren’t quite enough to evoke the total confusion that the potions and mix-ups can bring. Peter De Jersey’s slightly insipid Oberon was not as dominant or scary as I would have liked, and Andrea Harris’s feisty yet maternal Titania was a far more commanding presence. One wondered why Mark Hadfield’s excellent, mischievous Puck had not defected to the fairy Queen. The star of this show was, predictably, Joe Dixon’s Bottom. And, indeed, all the rest of him. (Bad joke). He was ribald, over-confident, and touchingly naïve, and the shambolic Pyramus and Thisbe had some wonderful visual touches that enhanced the text.
I was not totally convinced by the punk-esque fairies or the stark set, but the strength of this production lay in its warmth and the exuberant enjoyment of the cast.