A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

(2011)

Review by Kevin Quarmby

As Titania leads the metamorphosed Bottom from the stage, a triumphal procession of fantastical creatures is formed. Like a re-enactment from Alan Aldridge’s 70s classic, The Butterfly Ball, this interval-announcing scene becomes a riot of colour and revelry. Titania is held aloft as fairies and hobgoblins, accompanied by numerous outrageously costumed woodland creatures, celebrate the royal domestication of her talking ass. This abiding image of festivity and jollity is but one of many visual feasts in the RSC’s glorious interpretation of the Shakespeare perennial, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This is no sugar-coated production, though. The colourful Oz-like world of Titania, Oberon, Puck and Peaseblossom is itself a dream. A dream that belongs to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. This alternative world is Hippolyta’s only means of escape. Here, she resignedly learns to accept her plight. The tradition of double-casting Hippolyta with Titania, and Theseus with Oberon, becomes the overarching reasoning behind Nancy Meckler’s intelligent and entertaining production. Hippolyta is Theseus’s captive. He must woo his unwilling prize. The commodification of women in a male-dominated society becomes the central theme of the play.

The society in question is the testosterone world of 1960s Athens, reproduced in microcosm in the play’s subterranean setting. A double-height metal staircase snakes down from street level into this nightclub den of iniquity. Slick-suited young men sit at a downstage right table to drink and play cards as scantily-clad hostesses mingle among them, some decidedly the worse for alcoholic wear. Slightly upstage left, a young woman buries herself in a white leather sofa, self-consciously smoking and drinking, though not responding to her bleak surroundings. Engulfed by a fur coat, she languishes pensively and waits, an obvious outsider unwilling or unable to leave. This is Hippolyta, played by Pippa Nixon, a fiery defeated queen who resents her captivity with as much angry passion as she loathes those with whom she is forced to waste her hours.

If a place of entertainment, then the music and lighting that might brighten this dive’s dismal gloom are entirely absent. A generator has exploded beneath a downstage left trapdoor. It requires the immediate repair of a motley group of odd-job men. The rude mechanicals arrive, descend with their tools, and are heard banging and crashing about in an attempt to fix the broken energy supply.

The club belongs, of course, to Theseus. When first we meet him, we realise this is no ancient Greek warrior, but a seedy East London gangsta, more Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday than Henry Cavill in The Immortals. Jo Stone-Fewings oozes oily Kray Twin malice as he negotiates with, or rather dictates his martial terms to, Hippolyta. In return, he receives nothing but a disdainful mouth of spit from the Amazonian. A ruler in his Athenian underworld, Theseus seems strangely emasculated by Hippolyta’s understandable hostility to their enforced union.

Into Theseus’s criminal domain comes Egeus, man-handling his distraught daughter Hermia (Matti Houghton) down the metal staircase to the stage. Egeus’s demand for his daughter’s death seems wholly and disturbingly real in its twentieth-century honour-killing context. Gone are any light-hearted considerations of plot necessity. In their place is a cold and bitter expectation founded on familial and patriarchal ownership. As the property of her father, Hermia should and must obey his will. If she refuses, then her true value is no more. Egeus will dispose of his daughter with as much care and compunction as if she were damaged goods in a marketplace.

Hermia’s love for Lysander (Nathaniel Martello-White), and her father’s expectations for Demetrius, allow the willowy, gangly Helena to enter the fray. Whereas Hermia is a street-wise Londoner, a cockney sparrow who suits the raunchy barrow-boy mentality of her Lysander, Helena, played with wide-eyed realism by Lucy Briggs-Owen, is far more Hampstead than Hackney Marshes. Class considerations will inevitably lead to her match with the aspirational Demetrius (Alex Hassell). In the meantime, they must, in their dreamlike worlds, suffer the indignities and the muddy grime of a night in the Athenian woods. Like refugees from Glastonbury, they eventually emerge, each loving the ‘correct’ partner, even though they seem unrecognizable beneath the dirt and sweat of their nocturnal adventures.

So, Hippolyta rejects her conqueror. She falls asleep in a leather chair upstage. As her escaping dream unfolds, she is woken be a troupe of fairies to be revealed as Titania, their queen. Titania’s fairy followers are like teenage partygoers who have imbibed too many alcopops.

Titania and her fairies are troubled by Oberon’s very malevolent and dangerous imps, led by the suavely malicious figure of Puck (Arsher Ali). Already seen as Philostrate, the club manager and henchman of Theseus, Ali offers an elegance and stature to Puck that make his acts of mindless cruelty that much more disturbing. This is not a character with whom to feel humorous sympathy, but of whom to feel dangerous dread. Ali’s Puck commits his crimes with bureaucratic ease, his costume festooned not with the multi-coloured clown’s motley, but with layer upon layer of gentleman’s neckties, each perfectly knotted. This subtle re-envisioning makes far more sense of Puck’s relationship with, and thraldom to, Stone-Fewings’s bombastic warlord fairy, Oberon.

Puck may be the malicious creature of the woods, but his principal victim is the lowly Bottom, played by the comic actor, Marc Wootton. At times reminiscent of a cross between Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams, all rolled up in a manic Jack Black, Wootton’s Bottom offers a star turn that rules the stage. Every quip and aside draws belly laughs from the audience. When Bottom reappears as an ass, his simple physical transformation, unlike the over-literalized Fuselian prosthetics that traditionally accompany this change, does no more than highlight Titania’s blinded love. A garlic sausage phallus and some discarded baked bean cans, glorious platform boots and a bouffant double-beehive wig, create a lovable ass with absurd ease.

Bottom’s playmaking crew are no less funny. Christopher Godwin shines yet again this season, this time as the officious Peter Quince. Michael Grady-Hall presents a lustworthy chinless Flute, who embraces his Thisbe role with somewhat overenthusiastic vigour. Chiké Okonkwo’s Snout is all Caribbean dreadlocks, his loam-clad wall suffering every indignity the clumsy Bottom can throw his way. Timothy Speyer’s Starveling is a grumpy artisan who takes easy offense when not treated with utmost respect.

Most notable of all is Felix Hayes as Snug. With features so leonine they capture Bert Lahr’s 1939 Cowardly Lion with uncanny similitude, Hayes’s Snug dons a halo-like headdress of wallpaper brushes and a colourful frock coat to enact his roaring role. As he prances around the stage, his noisy antics are matched by the equally enthusiastic roars of the audience. The best of Music Hall, Vaudeville, The Goons and Monty Python, all feed the comedy of the rude mechanicals to create a wondrous picture of anarchic misrule.

On the night I attended the play, I was seated close by a special needs audience member. Excited by what she saw and heard, she expressed her opinion of the production with innocent candour. With a strange mixture of curiosity and pleasure, I watched and heard her unbounded delight. An unsophisticate in the RSC midst? Don’t you believe it. The more she laughed, the more we all laughed as the fun and frolics continued onstage. This single member of the audience, untouched by self-conscious Bardolatry and utterly willing to immerse herself in the evening, expressed the delight of us all. I only hope Nancy Meckler realises how completely she has captured the essential humour, danger and beauty of this often overly-romanticized of plays.

This is Shakespeare as slapstick entertainment and social commentary, packaged within a glorious Technicolor glamour that displays the RSC at its very best. Elsewhere, younger members of the audience squealed and giggled as we, too, became children for just under three hours in Stratford. None wanted it to end. None wanted to leave the world Nancy Meckler and the astonishing cast had created. The RSC tops an already impressive season with this wondrous delight.