A Midsummer Night's Dream
Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park
A warm, dry evening, the gradual glow of stage lights on one of Shakespeare's comedies as the sun goes down, a glass of something in the interval and a jacket to don if the temperature goes down - it is very difficult not to enjoy an evening in London's most famous parkland venue, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. For the tragedies and history plays this beautiful setting with its relaxed atmosphere can sometimes be a disadvantage but this Athenian comedy could have been written for it with its central woodland scenes.
In this production, Christopher Luscombe and his designer Janet Bird have emphasised the Athenian. The play opens with a late-Victorian suited Duke Theseus, on the clarinet, leading his own chamber orchestra, performing in what must be his own neo-Hellenistic odeon. The fairies could have stepped out of a painting by Alma Tadema colourfully draped in a nineteenth-century idea of classicism and each equipped with a double pipe like the aulos believed to have been played in ancient Greek theatre performances.
It looks delightful, but lines of grass that magically sprout between the paving stones and odeon tiers scarcely convert it into the mysterious woodland with the many locations that the story needs. That is a pleasant joke and gets its laugh: we must suppose that, buried in the real boscage all around, this is now the original ancient odeon that Theseus had copied at court, and to which fairy magic brings all the characters.
That fairy magic is often musical, the piping auloi get a lot of use and the spells applying the juice of love-in-idleness each have a couplet sung but, while pleasant enough, Gary Yershon's score has no musical magic of its own.
From the opening concert the bandsmen step down into the orchestra (in the Greek theatre sense of performance space) as their characters at court become part of the action but that idea is not built on among the courtiers, though both fairies and 'mechanicals' ('the staff' as this year's programme describes them) play instruments.
Hippolyta/Titania and Theseus/Oberon are doubled, as is frequently done today, their costumes colour coded to emphasis the fact, though I am uncertain what the director wants his audience to understand from it. It is made doubly clear when for the final fairy scene they retain their human clothes. Puck is suddenly emphasised as being the same as court organiser Philostrate, and the two pairs of lovers are also fairies in the dance, though there are plenty of fairies standing with lanterns in auditorium aisles who could be dancing the blessing on the stage? Philostrate doesn't have to be in view during the Pyramus and Thisbe play so there was plenty of time to change - plenty of Oberons and Titanias have done it while Puck leads into the fairies' entrance. Drawing parallels between human and fairy characters is one thing but I need more help if I am to get this director's message. Could that odeon on the wood be meant as actually the same place as the court where characters pursue their parallel dream lives? But then where do the non courtiers fit in? Is that why the programme calls them staff? Answers on a sheet of A4 please by Friday.
Mark Meadows is a richly spoken Theseus/Oberon and the production is well-voiced generally, though sometimes a little more power is needed to be heard in the open air (and a little more light, especially when characters were high up on the set, strange how seeing people's faces helps you hear them better!). Sarah Woodward a dignified Hippolyta/Titania so that the matching sensual quiver passes through both Titania and Bottom it is the more effective.
Richard Gloves makes a rather laid-back Puck - in fact, these are a fairly easy-going set of fairies. That great contention between Oberon and Titania and their trains is missing, though the way that Oberon lies with Puck does help to emphasise why he wants the Indian boy who is here no little child but a bare-chested ephebe with a wreath of flowers on his head, straight out of an Alma-Tadema depiction of a classical orgy.
Sam Alexander's Lysander seems a nice lad and if his Hermia (Olivia Darnley) seemed at first a little too shrill it's a warning of the temper she would show later. As Demetrius, Norman Bowman gave us little of the cad but a lot of Irish charm, he'd kissed the Blarney stone all right, and the accent made Puck's imitations in the forest more easily distinguishable, though Puck actually tended to Scots rather than Irish. Hattie Ladbury as Helena was very much the product of the new progressive gals' school that she and Hermia had clearly attended.
The mechanicals are played straightforwardly with no mugging and the take their performance for the Duke very seriously. Ian Talbot saying farewell after twenty years as Artistic Director in the Park with this, his tenth, performance of 'Bully' Bottom in a play which he has previously directed. It is not a showy Bottom, but one with fine timing and nimble action. His ass-head has big ears but leaves his face exposed to create its own ass-like features. It is a fine farewell by a team-player who shines for the better good of the play and he makes the character the same. This Bottom is not a big-head trying to take over but someone desperate to express himself and grasp a creative opportunity. Never for a moment is he trying to be funny. When, hilariously, his dead Pyramus rolls right across the stage and back to retrieve a misplaced dagger you know he is trying to save the play. Flute aims to be a believable female as Thisbe, their posturings are aiming at performance styles they seek to emulate, and even their costumes are based on ancient Greek vase paintings - though they have unfortunately copied those of comic characters in farces not those used in tragedy!
There are a few judicious cuts (though Thisbe kept a few lines that I don't remember having heard before), though replacing Theseus' hunting expedition, which usually wakes the lovers in the wood, with an unbelievably early breakfast picnic meant that fairy piping had to rouse them instead of hunting horns and we lost some well-known verse. This is not a particularly exciting production, and an amusing rather than an uproariously funny one, but it is played with great sincerity and can hardly fail to please, provided that the weather holds.
In repertoire in Regent's Park until 18th August
Reviewer: Howard Loxton