By William Shakespeare
Directed by Nancy Meckler
Date: Thursday 25th August 2011
We knew the ‘theme’ for this production would be East End gangster – Mark Wootton is wonderfully indiscrete – and I was prepared to give it a chance. I’ve also liked everything I’ve seen of Nancy Meckler’s work, including the Complete Works Romeo and Juliet which seemed remarkably unpopular with so many people. But I’m sorry to say that I found this concept-driven version of Midsummer Night’s Dream too heavy rather than too dark. The comedy was doing its best to break free from the constraints of the staging, and when the concept took a back seat (a white leather armchair, in fact) the performance managed to give us short bursts of laughter that were sadly not sustained throughout.
The set was massive. The back of the stage was all brick wall, with a metal staircase descending on the right hand side. There was a pillar back left, and various exits and doors. A large white leather sofa with matching armchair were placed mid stage, and there was a small table with three chairs towards the front and left. The overall effect was of an industrial building which was being used as gang headquarters by some fairly seedy criminal types. Three men in suits prowled around, playing cards and also playing with the two prostitutes who were on hand for whatever was needed – serving drinks, etc. There should have been three women in skimpies, but the third was playing Hermia tonight, as the original had suffered an injury during the vigorous fight sequence in the forest – more on that story later.
Hippolyta was also there, looking bored and unhappy as she sat elegantly on the sofa in her glamorous togs, including a fur coat. It looked as if her passport was being kept from her, which suggested an enforced stay in ‘Athens’. This state of ennui went on for some time before the play proper started with the arrival of ‘Duke’ Theseus, played by Jo Stone-Fewings. With slicked back hair and an incongruous (in terms of the Athenian setting) East End accent, his lines rather jarred, and although it was certainly clear that Hippolyta wasn’t happy with their impending nuptials, her lines didn’t quite fit either.
Not only were Egeus, Demetrius and Lysander already present from the start of this scene, Helena was also in the room, but up on the stairs at the back. I gather that people with seats at the back of the side stalls couldn’t see this bit, which is a shame, as at least it allowed us to be introduced to all of the young characters, and it gave us more of Lucy Briggs-Owen’s performance, easily the best of the night, and one of the best Helenas I’ve ever seen.
With the gangster setting, the prospect of Hermia being actually bumped off seemed more likely, which skewed the comedy for me. I can accept a criminal underworld boss being the law in his domain – The Syndicate in the Minerva showed us a similar situation in Italy – but why would this ‘Duke’ be unable to overturn a ‘law’ which was solely based on his own authority? An established country, ruled by a proper Duke, might have this problem, but the gangland scenario just didn’t support the text at this point, and many other times throughout the play.
Anyway, the lovers did a good enough job, and there were the usual laughs when Lysander suggests that Demetrius should marry Egeus. Nothing special about this scene, except for the way the dream theme is set up. Instead of leaving at the end of her bit, Hippolyta curls up in the armchair, which is pushed to the back of the stage, and goes to sleep, suggesting that the rest of the play is her dream. The set design supports this, with Titania’s bower being another white leather armchair all done up with flowers, the special flower with the drug being the same as the one Theseus offers Hippolyta and which she rejects, and a whole lot of chairs dangling at odd angles to represent this out-of-shape dream world.
The problem with this concept is knowing where the dream ends. Does it end with Hippolyta and Theseus ‘coming to’ as themselves after Titania’s ‘dreamed’ awakening? If so, how come everyone else has experienced this same dream too? Does the dream last to the end of the play? In which case, what happens when Hippolyta finally does wake up? I suspect the creative team would like us to forget all these points and just go with the flow, but then why have such a thought-provoking setting if you don’t want people to think about what’s going on? I like ambiguities and multiple possibilities, but this is a case of too many questions and not enough answers.
The mechanicals are next up, but this time they’ve already made their first entrance earlier. During the pre-show episode, the lights blew for some reason I don’t remember, possibly the sound system overloading? After a minute or two, a group of workmen turn up, flashing their torches everywhere, and they’re shown into the basement via a trapdoor towards the front of the stage which has smoke or steam coming out of it. That got a few laughs at the time, and now that everyone else (apart from the sleeping Hippolyta) has left, they re-emerge onto an empty stage, and Peter Quince decides it’s an ideal opportunity for their first planning meeting.
The majority of the mechanicals’ bits were fairly standard, and that helped to get the humour across. Francis Flute was dismayed to be playing a woman, but I didn’t see the others laughing at him much. They did laugh at Starveling playing Thisbe’s mother, though, probably because of his beard. Bottom was as keen as ever to play all the parts himself, and Mark Wootton did a good job of getting his character across. It’s just as well he was only doing Pyramus, mind you – the scripts for the other actors were a few pages each, while Bottom’s part was several inches thick!
This helped the mechanicals to get off stage with plenty of laughter, and then Puck and a couple of fairies turn up to start the third aspect of this play. Puck is doubled with Philostrate in this production, along with the usual Titania/Hippolyta/Oberon/Theseus pairings. I like Arsher Ali as an actor, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a Puck who’s noticeably taller than his Oberon, but there was so little life or animation in this Puck that a great deal of the humour and fun just disappeared. I always hold the director rather than the actor responsible for these strange interpretations that don’t work for me, but I’m at a loss to know why this Puck was so underpowered. Not enough rehearsal time? Whatever the cause, it’s a serious weakness in this play to have the main mischief maker act like a wet blanket.
Other than that, the fairies were pretty good, all sexy underwear and freaky hairstyles – quite menacing in fact. Hippolyta is redressed by the fairies so she can appear on stage as Titania, and Pippa Dixon managed to carry off the change pretty well, and even if the long, frequently boring weather report speech did drag a little, she did better than most with this section of the play. One of her fairies acted out the vot’ress’s pregnancy, and the resulting ‘baby’ – a piece of cloth bundled up – allowed for a game of pig-in-the-middle as Oberon’s crew try to snatch it from Titania and her girls. This was all quite vigorous, and then we’re left with Oberon telling Puck to fetch the magic flower. There was humour in Puck’s unenthusiastic response, but not enough to make up for his overall lethargy.
While Oberon waits for Puck’s return, Demetrius and Helena arrive. Lucy Briggs-Owen and Alex Hassell have worked together a lot this season, and it shows in their well-honed performances. Helena, in her neat cream outfit, is every inch the Home Counties young lady, destined for a husband, two children, a twin-set and pearls, making it even funnier (or perhaps harder?) to see her crawling on her hands and knees to fetch the shoe that Demetrius has thrown for her. Well, she did ask to be used as his spaniel, and he really didn’t think she would do it, but that’s infatuation for you.
After Puck’s return and his and Oberon’s exit, Titania reappears and goes to sleep in her comfy armchair. Oberon doses her eyes, and in this production they use a small light which disappears as they cast it onto the sleeper’s eyes. Titania and her chair are then lifted up while the skew-whiff chairs are lowered down for Lysander and Hermia’s entrance. He’s all over her in this bit – it sets up a good contrast for his temporary rejection of her later on – but she repels him firmly and so they settle down to sleep draped over different chairs. [13/9/11 Not so, they slept on the ground] Puck anoints his eyes – took him a while to spot the Athenian youth lying practically in front of him – and then Demetrius leaves Helena in the same spot to lament her ugliness. The way Lucy Briggs-Owen did this speech was excellent, going much further in childish tears than anyone I’ve seen before. She really did look pretty ugly on the line ‘I am as ugly as a bear’, but in a nice way, and it got a strong laugh. Lysander waking up and falling for her was all much as usual, followed by Hermia’s awakening and departure, at which point the chairs are removed to allow space for the mechanicals’ first (and only!) rehearsal.
This scene didn’t really sparkle for me to begin with. A lot of the dialogue fell flat, while Thisbe’s dialogue was too unclear for the mistakes to be heard, cutting the humour out altogether. Things improved with the transformation. Bottom’s long, blond curly wig made a good pair of ass’s ears, while his nether regions were adorned with a large salami and his hands were covered with tin cans. These were items that the mechanicals had as part of their rehearsal picnic – well, an actor’s got to eat. His lines after the other have fled were also well delivered, most of them ending with a braying sound. Naturally, Titania was smitten at once, and her fairies were soon introducing themselves to her new love. One of the named fairies had already been dropped as there were only three ‘big’ fairies to play the parts, so with one of these seconded to play Hermia, we saw Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed (I think Peaseblossom was the one they dropped) as little red lights, held by the two remaining big fairies. [13/9/11 Correction: it was Moth they dropped] This worked quite well, I thought – not as cluttered as some productions, and they didn’t dwell too long on the obscure humour either.
I think they took the interval here, and restarted with Oberon wondering what’s happened to Titania. Puck arrives immediately to give him the news, and this story was delivered better, with more life to it. Then Demetrius and Hermia arrive, and kick off the long section of the lovers’ quarrels and fights. Oberon and Puck spend most of this time on the back stairs, and again were invisible not only to the lovers but also to some of the audience. The lovers’ verbal sparring was matched by their vigorous physical wrestling as well – hence the original Hermia’s injury – and some of it was very funny, but for the most part it didn’t quite come together. I know the understudy has had a few performances already, and was doing a good job, but I didn’t feel she was fully up to the level of the others – hopefully more performances will bring her on even more.
This whole section has a lot going on, so I’ll just note the things I remember. Demetrius was lying on the couch when Oberon anointed his eyes. The chairs were brought down for Lysander and Demetrius’s attempted fight, and the lovers ended up asleep, draped over chairs at the front of the stage. When Puck removed the spell from Lysander, the chairs were gradually removed as well, so that the lovers tumbled gently into two groupings, nicely snuggled together.
After Titania has had another scene with Bottom, and Oberon has freed her from her infatuation, Bottom’s chair is pushed to the back of the stage, the chairs descend again, and with lots of music and a whirling dance, Oberon and Titania dress each other in their Athenian clothes and become Theseus and Hippolyta again. As the chairs disappear upwards, the couple ‘wake up’ in the middle of the stage, and since the hunting dialogue wouldn’t work here, we’re straight into the discovery of the two pairs of lovers. Their conversation and departure is followed by Bottoms’ awakening and exit and then the mechanicals’ regretting their situation – all pretty straightforward. In the final act, Philostrate uses a microphone to announce the possible entertainment options, and then Oberon and Hippolyta move to sit on the stairs at the front of the stage, while the other couples occupy the walkways on either side, lying down to let us all see what’s going on.
The Pyramus and Thisbe performance was good fun. Not all of the dialogue came across, but there was enough funny business to make it enjoyable anyway. Bottom and Flute were revealed snogging behind the curtain at one point, while Thisbe’s speech became somewhat moving as Flute appeared to suddenly realise the situation his character is in, faced with a dead lover. His delivery of the lines conveyed the emotion, despite their silliness, and although it wasn’t as full on as some productions, I was still moved. Moonshine’s dog was another home-made prop – couldn’t see what it was made of this time – Thisbe’s scarf went AWOL as usual, while Wall simply looked scruffier than usual and used his fingers to create the chinks. The song at the end was loud and modern, and there was no hint of recognition between Bottom and Hippolyta that I could see – a perfectly reasonable choice. The fairy blessing and Puck’s epilogue were pretty standard – nothing sticks on my memory – and then they took some brisk bows, to much applause, and headed off.
There was a post-show discussion tonight, which lots of people stayed for, and we had some good questions for the cast who turned up and Drew Mulligan, the assistant director. The chairs came in for some comment – not everyone got what they were for, but lots of people liked them – and there was a lot of praise for Imogen Doel, the understudy who has been playing Hermia for a short while now. I don’t remember the rest of the questions now, but it was a good session, ably chaired by Nicky Cox.
One idea came to me a few days later. Someone had pointed out the way that Dukes in Shakespeare’s plays have a habit of claiming they can’t change the law of wherever, and then doing that very thing by the end of the play. Theseus is the main culprit quoted in this context. It occurred to me that his line “Egeus, I will overbear your will” could mean that he was going to prevent Egeus from demanding that the law be applied to his daughter, rather than actually ignoring the law this one time. Or, in the vernacular of this concept, he was going to make Egeus an offer he couldn’t refuse.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me