A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
(2005)

Twelve months after a fascinating season of tragedies, the RSC are giving us four of Shakespeare's finest comedies, starting with the perennial favourite, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

What, yet another production of the Dream? I hear some of you say. You might think there can't be any new ways of doing this play - but you'd be wrong.

As with the tragedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream has benefited from an extensive rehearsal period which has allowed actors and backstage team to take risks. However, the Dream is in the capable hands of Gregory Doran, a director who pushes the boat out but never gets out of his depth.

He's been responsible for some of the finest offerings at the RSC in the past couple of years, including The Taming of the Shrew with Jasper Britton, Judi Dench in All's Well That Ends Well and Othello with Antony Sher. Now he's put his unmistakeable stamp on the Dream, giving it freshness and vitality without making it unrecognisable from the play Shakespeare intended.

Yet despite the excellent verse speaking, the high standard of acting and the groundbreaking use of puppets, Doran's modern-dress production will be remembered most of all for the hilarious play-within-a-play performed magnificently by the rude mechanicals.

This diverse group of characters have probably never been more rude. When Pyramus and Thisbe whisper their love for each other, they do it through a chink in the wall which separates them. Snout (an uproarious David Rogers) has a novel way of portraying the chink - by opening his legs. The sexual implications are evident for all to see; some of the schoolchildren in the audience giggled uncontrollably.

All the mechanicals sport Brummie accents, with Malcolm Storry a glorious, irksome Bottom and Paul Chahidi a laidback Quince who turns almost into a superhero during the Pyramus and Thisbe routine.

There are also quite funny moments with the four young lovers. Caitlin Mottram portrays Helena as slightly irritating while Oscar Pearce shows a hint of bumptiousness as Demetrius which sets him apart from Trystan Gravelle's Lysander. And Sinead Keenan is precociously feisty as Hermia.

I also enjoyed Jonathan Slinger's Puck, an overweight, idle, insolent servant who immediately connects with the audience.

Doran, who last year engaged the Little Angel Theatre's puppets to bring to life Shakespeare's narrative poem Venus and Adonis, uses puppets in the Dream. The best use is to show the changeling boy that Oberon wants to take from Titania.

As a whole, this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is clever, well-presented and highly enjoyable, although it doesn't quite make it into the "unmissable" category.

There are times when you're bemused at the way certain scenes are treated, such as why Theseus and Hippolyta don armour for a swordfight to pass the time before they're married; and why Oberon and Titania perform an excruciatingly bad dance when neither would qualify as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing.

Doran brings out the darker elements of the play, with the fairies dressed like Goths and Amanda Harris's Titania more like a refugee from Titus Andronicus than the queen of the fairies. The forest is a somewhat foreboding place. This almost invariably means that some of the magic has been sacrificed.

Despite that, this is in many ways a refreshingly different examination of arguably Shakespeare's most-loved play. And images of the rude mechanicals' mirth-inducing finale will stay with me for many years.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs until October 15th

Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and Philip Fisher reviewed it on its transfer to the Novello.

Reviewer: Steve Orme