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A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
Watermill (West Berkshire Playhouse) production, directed by Edward Hall
Theatre Royal Newcstle - on tour
(2003)

The first note I scribbled as I watched Edward Hall's production was "More laughs than usual". By the interval I was thinking, "But this is so obvious! Why hasn't it been done like this before?"

Hall finds humour everywhere in the play, not just the parts where we usually laugh. At one point very early on - and I am damned if I can remember the exact spot - there was a smattering of laughter from many parts of the theatre and I distinctly heard someone hiss "Sh!" - as if there are certain parts of the play where you can and others where you cannot laugh. As the play went on, the audience began to realise that it was being invited to laugh at points where it had never laughed before and the smattering grew and eventually became a roar.

The laughter arises from the lines and from the stage business (when Bottom wore his ass's head, every time he moved there was the clip-clop of hoofs), from a facial expression or a voice (Peter Quince as the quintessential Essex boy was a brilliant idea). Sometimes the jokes were broad (Bottom's long tail hanging down in front): sometimes subtle (a raised eyebrow or a double-take), but there was not a single scene in the whole play which did not have us laughing.

Paradoxically, by playing for laughs the underlying serious theme of the nature of love is brought into greater prominence and even the Theseus/Hippolyta strand, usually so dull, became enjoyable. And it is interesting that Hall has ignored the traditional doubling of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. It's hard to describe the effect this has, but it seems to free both characters.

There is a certain amount of doubling - Demetrius/Snout, Hermia/Snug, Quine/Egeus and Puck/Starvling - which was, I suspect, dictated by logistical considerations rather than any attempt to make a comment, and Hall's production does not draw attention to it. The design makes such doubling easy, too: all the actors wear a basic costume of what resembles nothing so much as Victorian underwear on top of which various items of costume are worn to signify character. In an amusing comment on the traditional picture of fairies, Puck wears a tutu! Each is in whiteface, too, which forces us to recognise characters by their bits of costume and voice.

But what of the fact that this is an all-male company? Roger Warren, who edited the text (and who also worked on the text of Rose Rage with Hall), says in a programme note that this "may help to bring out the a-sexuality, the androgyny in the play." If this is what Hall was trying to do, then, for me at any rate, it didn't work. I don't see any androgyny: I see strong sexual undercurrents. In fact, Hall makes more of the sexual suggestion in the scene in which Hermia forces Lysander to sleep further away from her than I have seen in many another production, and there is a very strong sexual charge when Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers head off to bed in the penultimate scene.

There is no attempt to imitate women: there is nothing of transvestism or of the female impersonator - nor even of the pantomime dame. The men who play the women wear dresses or skirts but not wigs: their costuming, like that of the male characters, is a gesture. They are presented as women but not as feminine.

Would it change things if they were played by women? Almost certainly. Would anything be lost by it? I am not so sure.

Does it matter? All I can say is, this is the most consistently funny production of Dream that I have ever seen - and I have seen many! It's a great introduction to Shakespeare's comedies for anyone who has not seen one before and a reminder to those of us who have that they are funny, in spite of the impression left by bad Shakespeare teaching in schools and less than sensitive productions!

"Dream" plays at Newcastle until 31st May, then goes on to the Richmond Theatre (3rd - 7th June), Oxford Playhouse (10th - 14th June), The Globe, Neuss, Germany (20th - 22nd June) and Teatro Romano, Verona (9th - 12th July).

Reviewer: Peter Lathan