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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

William Shakespeare
Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre
Cast, Doncaster

The cast Credit: Tristram Kenton
Harry Jardine (Oberon) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Amy Marchant (Helena), Dharmesh Patel (Lysander), Rebecca Birch (Hermia) and Daniel Fraser (Demetrius) Credit: Tristram Kenton

If you’re particularly interested in Shakespeare, you might be aware of Peter Brook’s legendary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1970. Frequently cited as one of the most influential Shakespearean productions of the last century, Brook broke theatrical convention by placing the action in a white box, thus leaving it to the audience to imagine the magical forest in which most of the Dream unfolds.

First staged in 2011 as part of the Latitude Festival, director Sean Holmes’s staging of the Dream takes a similarly daring approach by stripping the play of its visual iconography, including Bottom’s iconic donkey head. Moreover, this production revels in its ability to interact with the audience, producing an experience that the academic Tom Cornford describes as “more like a pantomime or a gig than conventional Shakespeare”.

There are three main plot subplots running throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first concerns the complicated love lives of four young Athenians, the second pivots on the marital strain between two powerful fairies, and the third revolves around a group of amateur actors trying to rehearse a play for a royal wedding. In an enchanted forest, these three strands become delightfully entangled.

It is clear from the opening of the play, in which Peter Quince (George Fourcacres) performs a stand-up routine filled with contemporary references (including Sean Bean and the recent royal wedding), that this Dream will veer away from Shakespeare’s script throughout the evening. That being said, the production preserves enough of the text to satisfy those who revere the original play.

So what did I think of this unconventional take on the Dream? The short answer is that I adored it. Holmes’s production is infused with a joyous, wayward and anarchic energy that makes it absolutely riveting to watch.

Whether it’s dressing up Oberon as a superhero (with a bum bag), using Barry White’s distinctive bass-baritone to convey the power of the magical love potion, or reconfiguring Lysander (Dharmesh Patel) and Demetrius’s (Daniel Fraser) love feud as a video game shoot-em-up, this Dream is punctuated with deliciously inventive details. I suppose one could argue that Holmes’s lively approach eliminates some of the play’s subtlety, but on the whole I thought it struck the right balance of irreverence and respect.

The cast are excellent across the board, and their obvious pleasure in performance lends the production an irresistible charm and freshness. George Fouracres is marvellous as Peter Quince, winning the audience over within the first few minutes of his prologue and serving as an MC figure throughout the production.

Often in productions of the Dream, the four star-crossed Athenians are pale, insipid figures. This is resolutely not the case here. All four actors—Rebecca Birch (Hermia), Dharmesh Patel (Lysander), Amy Marchant (Helena) and Daniel Fraser (Demetrius)—display great comic flair, particularly once the love potion has taken its effect. The scene in which the four characters trade insults (“you canker-blossom”, “you puppet”, “you dwarf”), culminating in a frantic food fight, provides one of the evening’s most hilarious scenes.

With his superhero outfit and thick-framed specs, Harry Jardine is probably the most unusual Oberon I’ve ever encountered. I loved the idea of transforming the King of the Fairies into a massive dork, and Jardine plays this role to the hilt, displaying a great talent for slapstick. Dressed in black lace, Allyson Ava-Brown’s moody and sensual Titania offers a pleasing contrast to her fairy spouse.

David Ganly gives a splendid performance as Bottom, capturing the character’s confidence and bravado with great skill. Equally impressive is Kayla Meikle’s wonderfully funny Puck, dressed like a member of the backstage team, who takes obvious pleasure in the romantic chaos she creates.

Filter Theatre is known for its inventive use of sound design, and this tradition continues with Dream. Chris Branch and Tom Haines bring Oberon and Titania’s warring fairies to thrilling life through the use of sound effects, and their musical arrangements imbue the production with the excitement of a rock ‘n’ roll concert.

This current tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play one more venue before it comes to an end: the Cambridge Arts Theatre, 5-9 June. I implore you to see it if you get the chance—it’s truly magical.

Reviewer: James Ballands