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A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
Iris Theatre Company
St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden
(2011)

A Midsummer Night's Dream production photo

Daniel Winder’s promenade production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which takes place about the gardens as well as inside and outside the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden, makes the whole play Bottom the Weaver’s dream. Before the action starts he lies sleeping on a bench, his mates nearby and when he wakes remembers the stories of mortals and fairies.

Interwoven now we learn of Theseus’s coming marriage to the Amazon Hippolyta, of Hermia and Lysander, a pair of lovers fleeing from a father’s wrath, of Demetrius, the pursuer Hermia is supposed to marry, and Helena, who loves Lysander, of Bottom’s friends, who are putting on the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, and of the fairy king and queen, proud Oberon and Titania, whose squabbling is playing havoc with the weather - they are all there, a mixture of things from his world and things fantastical.

Those who know the play well will notice cuts and rearrangements of the text but, the directorial concept apart, they do not affect the story which is clearly and vividly told. One costume, for the fairy Mustardseed, has a close resemblance to a petal-capped Flower Fairy but that is not typical of Helen Coyston’s eclectic designs and there is nothing sentimental about this production. It is fast-paced, well spoken and brings out very strongly the violent conflicts of the story. This is, after all, an Athens where a father is prepared to kill his daughter if she doesn’t marry the man he has chosen and where the upper classes, human and fairy, however charming they seem, are driven by egotistical self-interest, though Oberon does display a touching concern for the young lovers..

The proles, of course, are also putting on their play in the hope of a penny or two of ‘preferment‘, but they come over as a very nice bunch and Matthew Mellalieu’s ‘bully‘ Bottom is not overbearing but just very enthusiastic; he puts his heart and soul into everything he does. He acts Pyramus in their play with comic overblown bravura but becomes extremely touching when he thinks his beloved Thisbe is dead. Transformed by fairy Puck into an ass he becomes the paramour of the fairy queen with even more enthusiasm, whisking her off to somewhere private. On being returned to human form it is not his ass’s ears he misses, musing ’methinks I had’ he’s groping lower down.

Laura Wickham and Andrew Mullan are well matched as lovers Hermia and Lysander, with Ben Crystal and Lois Baldry as Demetrius and Helena they make a lively foursome. John Harwood doubles hard-hearted father Egeus with a delightful Peter Quince, who dozes off during his own Am Dram production and also plays a fluttery fairy. Oliver Mawdsley’s cack-handed Starveling (a Man in the Moon who manages to drop his dog) is a fairy too, darting eyed and watchful, and Tim Renouf an agitated fairy as well as a nervous Flute who overcomes his qualms to act out Thisbe.

David Hywel Baynes’s tattooed, giggling Puck could easily steal the show but he knows when to still his hyperactive playing so that is does not detract from his fellow players. He makes his first entrance swinging into the scene on a rope and, when not scrabbling along the ’dank and dirty ground’, is gambolling across it or crouched by his master Oberon. Baynes doubles the role with Theseus, with some amazingly quick changes from the mud smirched sprite to the tricorne-hatted Athenian and having to lose some splendid verse when he should immediately start the next scene but Emily Tucker’s elegant Hippolyta has to enter alone. She doubles fairy Mustardseed, whose first speech is turned into a song.

Diana Kashlan is a striking Titania yet an actress able to maintain an amazing stillness; when left hunched up centre stage asleep while other scenes are played around her. She has an intriguing double: a silent court lady in a red silk blindfold. What does she represent? Truth, Justice, what? An enigma that director Winder has given us to solve.

There is something slightly sinister about the make-up and indigo-bobbled costume of Peter Manchester’s Oberon that belies his suave smoothness, and he finds an intriguing new reading for those famous lines “I know a bank” that could be either promise or threat to Puck. You cross this spirit at your peril, yet he can be totally engaging, especially serenading some of the audience after the interval. As Oberon and doubling as courtier Philostrate he has an added song in a production in which music (composed by Candida Caldicot and performed by Raphael Hurwitz) plays an important part.

I regret that Winder’s production has lost some favourite passages of verse, including the final bride-bed blessing, but that is not noticed in the swift, clear telling of the story. Promenade productions always produce an intimacy and involvement with both actors and audience that here is taken further. Despite the doubling already mentioned the Athenian workmen are short of actors and appeal for recruits. No lines to learn but a very necessary part of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, the volunteers I saw acquitted themselves with honour. They got and gave an added pleasure to a show that adds another success to Iris Theatre’s productions at this venue, a particular delight on a summer evening. If there has been rain take a plastic mac, not to keep off rain but sometimes to sit on if the ground is damp, and remember that late evening is usually cooler than the day,

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays at St Paul’s Church Covent Garden until 8th August 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton