A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
New Bristol Old Vic
(2003)

There's a clear declaration of intent as soon as you step through the doors of Britain's oldest working theatre: the word 'new' is everywhere; on posters, programmes, even the livery of box office assistants. The message is clear: "The Old Vic is dead; long line the New Old Vic."

Since taking over recently as artistic directors, David Farr, lauded for last year's production of Coriolanus for the RSC (currently running at the Old Vic, London), and Simon Reade, have given us adaptations of Great Expectations and Les Liaisons Dangereuse, the latter directed by Samuel West; both attracting favourable notices.

This, their third offering, is a cracker, boding well for the autumn/Christmas season which brings the Bard's A Comedy of Errors, True West by Sam Shepherd, and Pinter's The Caretaker.

There has already been carping in some quarters that the programming is on the safe side. But it's surely too early to criticise the theatre for wanting to reach a wider audience at this stage. Nor would I take them to task for not staging the sort of Dream seen at Stratford last year which, visually imaginative though it was, abandoned the comedy and magic in its search for novelty. No such problems here. The setting is turn of the century, the set a marvellous mesh of branches and crescent moon reminiscent of a Victorian children's book illustration or work by Aubrey Beardsley.

As actors process through the aisles to the stage, the set temporarily obscured by a 'safety curtain', the production draws attention to its own artifice, much as last year’s Tempest at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre did. A hole is punched through the paper circle of the curtain; a character enters and the curtain rises to admit us, the audience.

It isn’t the most imaginative or the funniest Dream I’ve seen but the production values are high and the quality of the performances overall are good to very good – Ronan Vibert as Oberon/Theseus, who from where I was sat could do a brisk trade as a Alan Rickman lookalike, should he fancy a change of career; Tom Smith as Puck/Philostrate, who, with fine support from the other ‘mechanicals’, had the youngsters behind me roaring with delight – to the excellent, notably Kate Fleetwoood, a terrific feisty Helena, and Lyndsey Marshal as Hermia. I must mention too the fairies, all final year students at the Old Vic’s Theatre School, who acquitted themselves with cool professionalism.

Full marks too to the designer, Angela Davies, whose set- which includes a walkway above the forest - sets the mood beautifully, making this Dream a feast for the eye as well the ear. With Edward Hall’s stripped down production of the Dream doing the rounds and Michael Pennington’s open air adaptation opening at Regents Park, this production hasn’t got the attention nationally that it deserves. And while Bristol may not have won the 2008 European Capital of Culture bid it can take comfort from what promises to be great times ahead for its flagship theatre.

Reviewer: Pete Wood