A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
Regent's Park Theatre Ltd
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most popular and most performed of Shakespeare’s plays (there are three major productions running in London at the moment with a gay disco themed version at The Bridge and a Mardi Gras setting at the Globe competing with this one) with more conventional productions on greenswards all over the country.

You may think of it as a happy comedy for a summer evening but the play has a very dark side. Writing after heavy rain and bad summers had ruined harvests in the 1590s, Shakespeare seems to set this play in the aftermath, attributing their cause to the conflict between fairy royalty Oberon and Titania, and his human world is a stark one. Athenian ruler Theseus is marrying a bride acquired by conquest where a girl can be killed for not obeying a stern father.

Dominic Hill’s production starts with a rowdy techno-beat party but its setting suggests a now derelict fairground where tall grasses are encroaching and non-humans lurk in grottos among tree roots. His fairies aren’t intentionally malicious, just inquisitive (we see them going though human belongings), though the plebeian variety look like malevolent black spiders with limbs formed from crutches and sprung stilts, hair like porcupine spines sprouting from head and upper back.

Parallels between human and fairy worlds are emphasised by Kieran Hill’s doubling of Theseus and Oberon and Amber James of Hippolyta and Titania.

When Demetrius (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Hermia (Gabrielle Brooks) flee to the forest to escape the fate Gareth Snook’s stern Egeus proposes if she won’t marry his choice of Lysander (Michael Elcock), Lysander’s former girl Helena (Remy Beasley) tells Lysander about their plans and sets off with him after them.

Oberon, seeing Helena’s distress, seeks to use magic to bring happiness to them, though using the same art to humiliate Titania. Things don’t go as they should and the consequences, though hilarious, are savage. Contrary to the gender- and colour-blind casting, there the play shows things still significantly unequal. Although one may warm to these young lovers, there is every indication that they will end up as hidebound and unfeeling as their seniors.

The workingmen, rehearsing a play that they hope will win favour with the aristos, are presented as more kindly. We laugh with them rather than at them. They are led by Gareth Snook's warm-hearted Welsh Peter Quince, energetically supported by Susan Wokoma’s Bottom. Her friends refer to her as her but elsewhere she is called a gentleman. I don’t know whether this is meant to be significant but it doesn’t affect a splendid performance of a Bottom full of enthusiasm rather than ego as he (or she), though already in the lead, suggests she also plays most of the other parts.

Bottom, of course, gets caught up in Oberon’s plot against Titania, an episode in which Hill avoids the erotic (remember Brook’s landmark production?) to become rather charming.

While keeping its dark edge, this production is also very funny. Not least in a wizened but lively Puck, doing Oberon’s errands (however ineptly) with caustic appraisal of human foibles. Myra McFadyen finds the clown in the character. When urged to speed, he mimes a Zimmer frame, sitting on Oberon’s knee becomes a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The text is well spoken with a good sense of meaning and metre, there is an intriguing use of music and actor-produced sound effects, precise sleight of hand magic and simple touches like the popping of balloons for emphasis and linking human and fairy worlds by mortals making entrances beneath a sleeping Titania, There may be real trees round the stage but this production is the antithesis of the flower fairy Victorian idea of the play with rabbits running round the stage of His Majesty’s; I think Shakespeare would have liked it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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