A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
York Shakespeare Project
Rowntree Park, York
(2006)

Outdoor productions of plays like Dream can evoke a tremedous sense of realism, but you can go too far - as the clouds of midges that hovered over Friday night's audience in Rowntree Park proved!

Midges apart, director Mark France used the sylvan surroundings to great effect, especially when (appropriately) we catch glimpses of or hear the lovers chasing each other through the trees that surround the playing area. Towards the end, too, he brings Theseus, Hippolyta, the Lovers, Egeus and Philostrate down into the audience to watch Pyramus and Thisbe, so we were really involved in the play.

This is a very traditional reading of Dream, albeit set in the twenties, but there were a couple of things which I didn't really follow. Given that the fairies are nature spirits, it does make sense to dress them in natural fabrics in greens and browns, but why were they grubby and muddy? Yes, nature is out of joint, but somehow arms covered with mud that had obviously been rubbed on (you could see the finger marks) didn't make too much sense to me, especially since the mud was only on the arms and nowhere else. And why was Puck dressed as a Leprechaun? Too many extraneous associations there.

Similarly with the portrayal of Theseus and his court in uniforms which are vaguely fascist (as is the publicity image reproduced above). There is, of course, much mention (by Theseus himself) of his military prowess, but the red and black dress uniforms worn by Theseus and Egeus go beyond that. Perhaps France is intending to reflect the somewhat draconian nature of the laws of Athens which would condemn Hermia to death for disobeying her father, but if that is the case, I can only suggest that he would have been better trusting the text. This attempt to "explain" merely imports a lot of extra baggage which could confuse.

I have never fully understood why, traditionally, Theseus and Hippolyta are double cast as Oberon and Titania (apart from the obvious consideration of reducing the cast by two). It doesn't happen in this production and the play is better for it. Audrie Woodhouse makes a wonderfully sexy Titania, but it's a sexiness with a sense of fun, not just in the scenes with Bottom (nicely played by Keith Cartmell - and his cigarette after his tryst with Titania was a brilliant joke!) but also in her relationship with Oberon.

In a mixed cast of amateurs and professionals there is, inevitably, variation in the performances but France is to be congratulated on the clarity of diction of all the cast: every one of Shakespeare's words comes across clearly, although there is a certain amount of end-stopping of lines - the sort of thing which Shakespeare satirises so beautifully in Peter Quince's prologue to the play within the play - which led, at times, to a rendering which owed more to the metre than to the speech rhythm.

The Lovers - and in particular Regan Bevons' feisty Helena, so liberal with her fists and elbows - gained as many laughs as the Mechanicals (which is as it should be) and I was much taken by the way they were ensnared in a web of ropes by the fairies as they stagger, exhausted to the sleep after which "all will be well".

The characters of the individual Mechanicals were nicely delineated and, although their lack of any pretension to culture or sophistication remains, they were played without being in any way over-the-top.

All in all, it's an enjoyable evening's theatre (midges apart!) but, I have to say, without that extra imaginative spark which characterised Sarah Punshon's Romeo and Juliet last summer or Ali Borthwick's Two Gentlemen in December.

Playing until 30th July (not Monday 24th)

Peter Lathan