A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
Unfolds Theatre
The Rose Playhouse

Unfolds Theatre at the Rose Playhouse Credit: Kathy Travelyan
Nick Oliver (Lysander, Starveling and Fairy) and Elinor Machen-Fortune (Puck and Philostrate) Credit: Kathy Travelyan
Rhiannon Sommers (Hermia and Snug) Credit: Kathy Travelyan

“Roll up! Roll up! Come and see the amazing…” Bearded lady, or such like, would complete the more usual invitation to ogle the unusual. Unfolds Theatre, however, invites us into Dreamland to spy on the strange goings-on in the woods in their funfair-themed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Rose Playhouse.

The basement site of the archaeological remains of the original Rose Theatre and the viewing platform above have been transformed by set designer Isabella Van Braeckel and lighting designers David Palmer and Misha Anker into a fairground fantasy-land, festooned with chains of coloured fairy-lights and made home to an army of outsized rubber ducks and inflatables.

I struggled to identify the relevance of the ducks: was this an allusion to an equally unfathomable moment in Batman Returns when The Penguin (Danny DeVito) rides Gotham’s sewers in a rubber-duck boat? I guess it doesn’t matter; after all, as Theseus instructs his wife Hippolyta, lunatics, lovers and poets share the same capacity for wild imaginative leaps which defy reason. This is Dreamland: anything is possible.

In the event, director Alex Pearson’s carnivalesque concept doesn’t overly impede what is a swift, beguiling and lucid performance of Shakespeare’s play. Similarly, the pre-performance ‘pin-the-tail-on-the donkey’ audience-participation is a bit of a damp squib, but such contrived ‘fun’ is soon swept aside by the linguistic and theatrical magic of the text. Until the final scenes, that is. I hesitate to reveal a ‘trick’ which provides some belly laughs, but offer a warning to avoid the front row if you are a shy, retiring type.

What is most impressive about this production is the confidence and persuasiveness of the cast, who take two or three roles each and who unanimously deliver the text with naturalness and clarity, revealing and evidently relishing Shakespeare’s colloquial veracity. Even the youngest in the audience could readily enjoy a tale clearly, animatedly and compellingly told in an unbroken 90 minutes.

Ian Hathway is an urbane and benevolent Theseus, more Renaissance prince than conquering patriarch determined to control his vanquished Amazonian queen. We forget his declaration that he has "woo’d thee with my sword, And won thy love doing thee injuries". Similarly, his ringmaster Oberon betrays only the barest signs of malevolence—there was the merest flash of fire and malice as he instructed Puck to streak Tytania’s eyes with the juice of the love-in-idleness bloom and make her "full of hateful fantasies".

Cindy-Jane Armbruster’s Hippolyta is an over-excited new bride rather than the noble, chaste Amazonian stereotype of Elizabethan lore. And she creates little sense of Tytania’s uncontrollable rebelliousness; after all, the Elizabethans believed that the fairy-worlds were domains where the queens had sovereign authority.

It is left to Robert Hazle’s scornful, vexed Egeus to intimate the disturbance of the natural order. However, this is at least partly because Tytania’s infatuation with the ‘translated’ Bottom is the most heavily cut element of the drama. Thus, it’s easy to forget, swayed by the prevailing high spirits, that Oberon induces political and sexual chaos as he drugs his queen and sparks her desire for a low-ranking mortal with an ass’s head. And, in any case, Hazle quells his anger if not his punctiliousness as a spry Peter Quince in charge of the rustics’ volatile theatrics.

Sydney Aldridge is superb as both the hysterical, comfort-eating Helena and the preening, gansta-rapping Bottom, switching effortlessly and with utter credibility between contrasting roles—in common with the rest of the cast. Rhiannon Sommers’s Hermia wields her wheeled-suitcase with feistiness when Nick Oliver’s Lysander proves less than an alpha male, but cowers convincingly as the bespectacled, clipboard-clutching Snug, reluctantly pushed into the limelight as the ‘roaring’ lion in the mechanicals’ play. Clark Alexander is an imperious Demetrius but as Francis Flute he embraces the cross-dressing role of Pyramus’s beloved Thisbe with crooning enthusiasm.

Elinor Machen-Fortune is a fittingly put-upon and long-suffering Philostrate, but as Puck she plays around too much with the rhythm of the text and hinders the elf’s mischievous slipperiness; this is a pity as such verbal litheness would in fact complement the vigour and vivacity of her embodiment of the sprite’s physical exuberance. Machen-Fortune does, however, capture Puck’s presumptuous rebelliousness: he is both recalcitrant and repentant, like all good teenagers.

Pearson makes the most of both the limitations and expanse of the venue. The viewing-platform ‘stage’ must be no more than 12x20 foot, but it seems to have been magically enlarged: every inch is inventively used. Ian Hathway, wearing his choreographer’s hat, pushes the cast through some vigorous routines which are expertly executed.

I drew a sharp intake of breath as Puck bounded backwards to perch perkily on the narrow safety-railing. The insulted Hermia’s head-first, airborne lunge at the cocky Helena seemed destined to end in physical damage to match the diminutive dwarf’s wounded pride; until Lysander and Demetrius exhibited the dexterity of ice-dance champions and caught her with slick sureness.

The cast step beyond the theatrical frame. Oberon is, like us, a voyeur, watching Puck’s mischief unfold with wry amusement and then with rancour. The bewitched Tytania curls up to sleep at the feet of an audience member. Helena chases Demetrius the full length of a row of seats, necessitating some swift side-stepping to avoid calamitous injury.

Then, when the lovers lose their way in the bowels of the wood, the lights dim ominously as Puck follows them to the furthest corners of the Rose basement. Not all the players can make the dialogue clearly heard from these depths but there is a hint of the danger of venturing too far into one’s dreams and delusions.

It’s a rare intimation of darkness in this production. And, Pearson can’t resist indulging in some tiresomely extended hamming in the mechanicals’ play. Yes, the kids and tourists will love it, but—as the bendy balloons, faux banana skins, and cack-handed cacophony take hold—we are in danger of overlooking the fact that the burlesque is intended not just to prompt laughter through ludicrousness but also to caricature the more serious spirit of the work, reminding us of more troubling themes.

That said, this production does have one moment of pertinent perceptiveness. Switching to blank verse, the confused, now doubly-desired Helena confronts Hermia with their memories of their ‘sisters’ vows… all school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence—when the women, "like two artificial gods,/Have with our needles created both one flower"—and we are reminded of Tytania’s love for the votress whose child she has adopted, to Oberon’s vicious chagrin. "Like to a double-cherry" the women grew, and are now parted. The echo of Romeo and Juliet is surely not accidental; Shakespeare intimates here a female bond that goes beyond the romantic infatuations with drive the play’s narrative.

Sydney’s declamation of these lines is admirable. She is neither the obsessive Helena nor posturing Bottom we have seen so far, and there is a moment of expressive stillness to be grasped—or there would be if Lysander and Demetrius were not simultaneously engaging in some superbly choreographed fisticuffs. It probably depends where you are sitting in the theatre, but look out for this moment of insight, try not to let it be swept up in the mayhem.

This production will undoubtedly keep audiences entertained this summer. There may be some questionable costuming and not all the cast proved equal to the musical demands made of them. But Unfolds Theatre resists the temptation to unfold all the magic, letting us relish the mayhem: as Bottom says, "Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream".

Reviewer: Claire Seymour