A Midsummer Night's Dream
Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Two Greek hoplites in full armour burst onto the stage and fight fiercely with swords for a few moments. They stop and remove their armour, and we realise that they are Theseus and Hippolyta. Why are they fighting? Because they are two warriors and they are trying to fill in the time before their marriage.
I have seem Dream goodness knows how many times, but this is the first time I have seen Hippolyta actually played as the Amazon she is rather than it being simply mentioned in passing.
A man in a shapeless overcoat and black woollen hat sweeps the stage, cleaning up after the Mechanicals leave, and speaks to a fairy: "How now, spirit, whither wander you?" Another Fairy appears: "Either I mistake your shape and making quite," she says, "Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Called Robin Goodfellow."
Yes, it's Puck, disguised - and with a broom. Just as, in the final scene, he tells us, "I am sent with broom before To sweep the dust behind the door."
And these are typical of Gregory Doran's production: little details which others miss (or ignore) he picks up. Other things he slants slightly differently. When Puck says, "I go. I go. Faster than arrow from a Tartar's bow," he is slouching off and the words as said sarcastically in response to the somewhat hectoring nature of Oberon's command. Indeed, this was a more endearing Puck than most: although in Jonathan Slinger's performance he does, of course, take a delight in the trouble he causes, in his relationship with Oberon he is more the slave in a Plautus comedy than an Ariel.
And in places Doran has a slightly different take on the text: "What? Jealous, Oberon?" says Titania, which makes much more sense than the usual, "What, jealous Oberon?"
But it is in his depiction of the Mechanicals that Doran departs most obviously from tradition. Played with broad Brummie accents - Bottom (a superb performance by Malcolm Storry) even uses "yow" rather than "you" - they are not the figures of fun we have come to expect, the common man being laughed at for his ignorance. Rather they are innocent rather than ignorant and Flute (Jamie Ballard) rises above the awfulness of Thisbe's last speech to make it quite moving. And because Snout's (David Rogers) arms are trapped inside the box he is wearing, Wall's chink becomes hilariously different to the usual two fingers.
As with most recent productions of Dream, the lovers are not mere romantic cyphers but fully rounded passionate human beings, with Sinéad Keenan (Hermia) and Caitlin Mottram (Helena), both in their debut seasons with the company, particularly impressing.
It is a production full of good things (the puppet Indian boy works superbly - I wonder: was I alone in finding it slightly scary?) and unique insights - I did like the way in which Bridgitta Roy's Hippolyta tried to intervene on behalf of Helena and Lysander in the first scene, only to be brushed aside by Theseus (Miles Richardson).
The production values, too, are superb. The set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is richer than we have seen from the RSC in recent years, very different to the very spare set of Michael Boyd's excellent 1999 production, and Tim Mitchell's lighting and Paul Englishby's music alongside Martin Slavin's sound make a major contribution.
But there are weaknesses, too: a particularly unimpressive dance by Oberon and Titania stands out, and, whilst the final scene looks great, to lose the song ("Now until the break of day") and simply speak the words kills the magic.
That aside, it's an excellent, insightful production, one which even those who know the play well will find interesting and enjoyable.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan