By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage
Venue: Noel Coward Theatre
Date: Wednesday 23rd October 2013
There was an unusual experience for us today; Steve rated this performance much lower than I did. However, he did have a chesty cold which inevitably reduced his enjoyment, so I’ve stuck with my rating overall.
The opening set consisted of tall window panels with just a small wooden base to each. The windows formed two archways, one behind the other, and behind these was a solid wall of windows with what looked like a door or doors concealed within it. There was some misting on the window panes, suggestive of age and decay, and with a soft yellowish light glowing through the panes, the whole set had a bronzed antique effect. The Athenians costumes were 1950s in style, but the fairies were another matter.
Theseus was still putting on his jacket when he and Hippolyta (Sheridan Smith) arrived on stage. At first I thought his accent was from the wilds of Somersetshire, a location often frequented by theatrical types, but with longer acquaintance I realised he was Irish. Hippolyta was every inch the City business woman, with a sleek grey suit and a fur wrap. They were very much in love and looking forward to their nuptials when Egeus burst in on them and things started to go wrong.
This Egeus (Leo Wringer) was wonderfully angry with Lysander, talking over the young man when he tried to defend himself. Theseus himself tried to get a word in but was completely ignored. Eventually Lysander spoke up, and they were delivering the lines at such a rapid pace that the magnificent “Do you marry him” was almost lost! Fortunately this audience was on its toes, metaphorically speaking, and caught the joke anyway.
I was watching out for Hippolyta’s response to Egeus’ demand to be allowed to have his daughter killed; there wasn’t much of one, but her eyes did narrow a bit. Theseus was certainly concerned at what was coming out, and when Helena was mentioned, he put his head in his hands; the day just kept getting worse and worse. Hermia was pretty spunky in this version, and after the Duke and others left her and Lysander alone, their discussion of the trials of a lover got some chuckles going in the audience. These became a full-blown laugh at Helena’s first line after their departure, and we were kept well entertained for the rest of the play.
Philostrate ushered the mechanicals into the room for their first rehearsal, and they gazed around in wonder at the magnificence of it. Bottom (David Walliams) was dressed like a luvvie with a mandatory cravat. His friends found him very entertaining, as did we, especially when he roared “as gently as any sucking dove”. After his first ‘speech’, showing us all how great he would be as a tyrant, they applauded and Bottom fanned himself; quite an effort. Quince was finding it difficult to control his actors as usual, and threw a strop when Bottom wanted to play every part himself – not into one-man shows then – but he and Bottom left together at the end; not sure if they were an item. Bottom was certainly getting very close to his Thisbe to discuss their roles.
It was after this scene that the windows rose up and revealed the ‘forest’ behind. The first thing I noticed was the full moon looming through a gap in the back wall, and then it was the apparently incongruous spiral staircase on the left of the stage. After a few minutes I was able to take in more of the set design, and it made more sense. With dilapidated walls on either side and the crumbling wall at the back, this appeared to be some kind of fancy room which had been neglected for many years. I couldn’t make my mind up whether it was part of the Duke’s current palace, or an earlier mansion in the forest which had fallen into disrepair, but it was an effective location for the forest activities regardless. There were some chairs around the place, mostly on their sides, and the rubble from the back wall formed some steps which made it easier for everyone to get in and out of the room. There were also gaps in the side walls for extra entrances and exits, and after a little while I realised that there were tree images on each wall in pale green colours, adding to the forest effect.
What distracted me from the set to begin with was the antics of some hippy fairies, doing some serious rocking to wild music, which every so often included a snippet of a 60s hit – California Dreamin’ for example. This was an effective way to introduce the wilder aspects of this play, and there were plenty of reefers being passed around during the fairy scenes.
It was a male fairy this time who chatted to Puck, and for once the fairy queen was well attended, with around six or seven fairies available to wait on her. Her global warming speech was pretty good, and I was certainly aware that she and Oberon were the ones responsible for the peculiar weather patterns the humans were enduring. For the changeling boy speech, she sat on the ground with a couple of her fairies lying on either side and the rest clustered around her, and they joined in to help her illustrate her story.
When Helena and Demetrius turned up, Oberon now being invisible, Helena soon had Demetrius on his back. Straddling him, she undid his pants and pulled his shoes off – this woman meant business, despite his warning that she might be at risk from him. She pulled his trousers down later, and when she got up I realised her dress was unbuttoned down the front; so much for maidenly modesty. It’s not surprising that Demetrius ran off, pursued by a bear (of a woman).
When Puck returned, he handed Oberon a small square picture of a purple flower. Oberon sniffed the aroma of this picture deeply, and it sent him into a sort of trance; he delivered “I know a bank…” in this state. When he gave Puck some of the flower to use on Demetrius’ eyes, he simply tore a small bit of paper off one corner; I noticed there was a gap on the other side which was presumably from an earlier performance. (To apply the juice, they simply held the bit of paper close to the person’s eyes and that person responded by lifting their body.)
There seemed to be more fairies around Titania when she arrived on stage to prepare herself for bed. Some fairies put cushions on the landing at the top of the staircase, and the lady herself smoked a joint as her fairies lulled her to sleep with the song. Once settled on her cushions, the others left, apart from one fairy who was told to stand guard. This turned out to be Oberon in disguise – he took off his goggles and did the eye anointing quickly and easily, the cad.
When Hermia and Lysander arrived, they lay down on opposite sides of the stage, eventually. Lysander was really trying it on with Hermia, even lying on top of her at one point, but she was a good girl and made him behave himself. Puck soon found the sleeping Athenian, doped him up with love juice, and left him to it. Demetrius and Helena came on almost before Puck had left, and they were having a tug-of-war with Demetrius’ jumper; he was down to his underpants and vest. This Helena was much stroppier than any other Helena I’ve seen. While she was having a go at Demetrius, and later at Lysander, I saw her as a potential Adriana (Comedy of Errors), and while she became quite sweet once she got what she wanted, she was no picnic up till then.
With Demetrius gone, Helena had another moan, this time about her looks. Lysander woke up and was immediately smitten; he even began to take his clothes off and would have followed her but for Helena’s additional “No!” He threw his T-shirt in Hermia’s direction when he did leave, and it was this which Hermia was struggling with in her dream, believing it to be a snake.
Hermia’s departure was followed by the arrival of the mechanicals. The problems with the play had to be sorted out first, and there was a general consensus about what to do. When Bottom was detailing the additional prologue to excuse the lion, he couldn’t remember Snug’s name and was prompted by the others. He also stroked Thisbe’s face whenever he got the chance; it was funny, but from the audience’s response I wondered if it was a familiar gesture from his comedy work.
Puck joined them before the rehearsal began, and Bottom was soon off stage to “see a noise”. Thisbe’s high squeaky voice made the others laugh – Quince got stroppy again – and after she repeated Pyramus’ cue, Bottom reappeared as an ass. In this production, the transformation consisted of a furry cap with long ears sticking out on either side, some furry mitts for his hands and some larger teeth. There seemed to be ribbons or somesuch hanging from the cap, but I wasn’t able to get a clear view of them. It was enough to scare the rest of the mechanicals though, and they soon ran off leaving Bottom on his own.
The pacing up and down was followed by a song and a noisy braying ‘Ee-or’. Titania began to stir, and soon she had draped herself provocatively over the rails of the staircase, encouraging the amazed Bottom to “sing again”. He was standing side on to the audience, and responded to her request by slowing turning his head to look at us – very funny. When the other fairies turned up, they all gathered near the front of the stage, with Titania and Bottom cuddled together and the fairies grouped around them. Bottom looked nervous at the way these fairies were checking out his ears, but one of the fairies gave him a huge spliff and after one or two puffs Bottom began to chill out. He found Mustard-Seed’s name very funny, and all the fairies joined in the laughter (stoned out of their minds, every one of them). Then Bottom gave another loud ‘Ee-or’, and all the fairies jumped back, startled. The next ‘Ee-or’ made them laugh, and after the next one they echoed it back to him, a new fairy-call. A long rope made out of strips of cloth was used to lead him off, and then they took the interval; just an hour so far thanks to the brisk pace and judicious cutting.
Oberon and Puck began the second half, and Puck’s description of the chaos he caused amongst the mechanicals was very good. When Hermia and Demetrius arrived, Oberon was not at all happy at this further complication in the Athenian’s love lives, though Puck was delighted at the idea of two men loving one woman – naughty boy.
With Demetrius given the flower juice, Puck brought Helena and Lysander on stage, and when Hermia arrived we got the full range of the lovers’ comedy. The young Athenians were even more undressed this time: Hermia was down to her slip, although she was wearing Lysander’s T-shirt over it, Demetrius was still in pants and vest, Lysander’s trousers were at half-mast and Helena’s dress had come off by this time. While the foursome wrangled, the men were torn between wrestling each other and fawning over Helena, trying to be near her. As the scene wore on, they each tore off a chair leg for their fight, but before they could get going, Hermia did her best to be seductive towards Lysander – no use. When she realised that she really had lost Lysander’s love, she grabbed the chair leg out of his hand and tried to attack Helena with it. Things got pretty rough for a while – this Hermia was just as vicious as Helena, even grabbing Lysander by the balls at one point – until Lysander and Demetrius finally left the stage to have their fight, and Helena ran off to escape Hermia. Hermia also left – no “I am amazed, and know not what to say” this time.
Regardless of Oberon’s anger, Puck was unashamedly delighted at the fun he was having with all this discord. On Oberon’s instructions, he brought the four lovers onto the stage and made them fall asleep. Lysander was at the front of the stage, Demetrius by the staircase, Helena front right and Hermia front left – no contact whatsoever. Then Puck got to work, removing Lysander’s enchantment and causing him to crawl over the stage to lie beside Hermia. Demetrius was likewise brought over to lie beside Helena, and all the while Puck sang his lines – “On the ground sleep sound”, etc. It was nicely done, and left Titania plenty of room to romp with her beloved Bottom in the next scene.
The interplay between Bottom and the fairies was fine, with Bottom pausing briefly before “dried peas”. Oberon’s speech to Puck was severely cut, and soon he and his queen were dancing to celebrate their reunion, while Puck dragged Bottom off at the back of the stage to remove his ears. The music for this dance reminded me of the slow number at the end of a disco, and was having much the same effect on the fairy king and queen.
When Bottom woke up, he was suitably affected by his experience, and marvelled at the scale of his earlier attributes – his hands were wide enough on “methought I had”, but they got wider, and, with a “yes, madam” to someone in the front row, wider still. With the doubling of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, it was necessary to have Bottom’s scene before Theseus and Hippolyta entered to discover the lovers. There seemed to be less arguing over the quality of Theseus’ hounds this time, and they made their way pretty briskly through the rest of the scene as well. Egeus still wasn’t happy, and stalked off before Hermia could come near him. Helena was a bit unsure of Demetrius’ attitude towards her, and was very happy to find he was in love with her again.
Back at the palace, the rear wall came down again, leaving the staircase on view. The rest of the mechanicals were gathered together and when Bottom arrived they were delighted to see him, especially as he no longer had those ears! The dialogue was clear, but not as funny as it can be, and then the players left to prepare for their show while the servants readied the room for the performance. Chairs were added to the left and right corners of the stage, and two cushions were placed in front of those on the left: these were for the two young ladies to sit on while their husbands had the chairs. A red curtain was lowered into place in front of the wall, and I think a carpet was laid out in front of it; all the action took place in this central area anyway.
The choices for the evening’s entertainment were more limited than usual – Philostrate didn’t offer “The thrice-three muses mourning for the death of learning” – but despite his excellent description of the mechanicals’ production, Theseus was determined to see it. The two young couples were very rowdy when Peter Quince came on to give the prologue, which didn’t make him any less nervous. They applauded and whistled and made every effort to enjoy themselves. The cast trooped on in costume, and I have to say these mechanicals didn’t stint themselves in that department. Bottom was in a Roman soldier’s uniform, with a golden breastplate, kilt and cloak and a very small sword. Thisbe had a fetching white gown and an elaborate wig, not to mention plenty of makeup which was properly applied for once. The lion was sweet, with a shaggy golden costume, and both Moonshine and Wall were better dressed than most. Moonshine had a cute little toy dog as well.
As Quince described each character, they stepped forward briefly, but both Thisbe and Wall stepped back too soon and had to come forward again. They acted out the play to Quince’s description, somewhat like The Mousetrap in Hamlet, and when Pyramus found Thisbe’s shawl, he was able to take a red handkerchief out of a concealed pouch to represent the blood – nice touch.
Wall started things off well, and there were no shenanigans with the chink today; he simply held out his hand and opened his fingers so the lovers could talk to each other. The dialogue ran through OK until “Ninny’s tomb” – Quince was in despair – and then the lovers and Wall left the stage. The lion introduced himself, and then Moonshine fell foul of the literal-minded audience on stage, who insisted that he should be in the lantern. With Thisbe’s arrival, the play continued, and the performance actually went quite well. The lion left Thisbe’s shawl for Pyramus to find, and he then launched into the long, long, speech before stabbing himself with the tiniest sword you’re ever likely to see any Pyramus carry. He managed to rhyme “wound” with “confound” along the way, and recovered briefly several times before finally expiring. Theseus began “With the help of a surgeon”, but had to break off for another burst of dying from Pyramus, which proved to be the last.
Thisbe was simpler. Her lines weren’t as moving as I’ve known, but they were delivered reasonably well, with a pause before “leeks”, as if Flute wasn’t quite sure what he could use to rhyme with the earlier “cheeks”. When she died, her head fell into Pyramus’ crotch area, and as we applauded, Bottom’s hand came up and stroked her head – very funny. When Bottom sat up to explain about Wall, her head went even deeper down, and then they all got up for the bergamask. Theseus delivered his final lines before the dancing began, which allowed him and Hippolyta to slip off quickly for their costume change. The bergamask turned out to be country-style line dancing, and it went on for a short while before the mechanicals and the others all melted off the stage, leaving it to Puck and the rest of the fairies.
I had already seen Puck in the background, and as he came forward the curtain was raised and we could see the other fairies behind the glass. They came in through the French windows carrying incense in their hands, and waved it around the place as they sang their fairy song and danced together. At the very end, Puck came forward to deliver the epilogue, finishing by standing in the centre with arms outstretched and head bowed. It took the audience a little while to recognise their cue, but eventually the applause got going, and carried on for some time. David Walliams was in the middle of the line and seemed to think everyone was there to see him, while I was thinking it was a good ensemble performance to which he contributed his share. There have been better productions which have brought out a lot more of the humour, but this was a good effort which kept the running time down to two hours plus an interval while still covering the important aspects of the play. We look forward to Michael Grandage’s take on Henry V next year.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me