The intention of Shakespeare’s plays is writ large under the titles.
Lazarus have thrown an awful lot at the theatrical wall here and for the most part it sticks rather well.
For those unfamiliar with the play, it was written at the height of Shakespeare’s creativity alongside Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. It features four separate plots linked by the wedding celebrations of Theseus, Duke of Athens (Lanre Danmola) and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Ingvild Lakou). Interwoven with that are our four young lovers Hermia (Elham Mahyoub), Helena (Saskia Vaigncourt-Strallen), Demetrius (Jonathan George) and Lysander (Max Kinder) who are rebelling against authority and having a tricky time trying to work out who’s supposed to be in love with who. Our third group of characters are the woodland faerie folk ruled by Oberon and Titania (here double-roled by Danmola and Lakou) whose jester Puck (Tessa Carmody) is the closest Midsummer Night probably gets to a protagonist. Finally, a troupe of amateur actors (the “mechanicals”) are rehearsing a production of Pyramus and Thisbe which they plan to stage at the wedding. Led by carpenter Peter Quince (John Slade), the group includes gender-bending bellows-mender Francis Flute (Eli Caldwell) and overly-confident weaver Nick Bottom (David Clayton) who wants to direct, write and play every part, including Hercules – which isn’t even in the play. Mischievous Puck enchants sleeping Lysander and Titania into falling for the first thing they see when they wake, meaning Lysander falls in love with Helena and Titania with Bottom, who has – by that point – been turned into half man, half ass.
As you’d expect from director Ricky Dukes, the stage has been stripped back to the bare essentials. The opening vista is of a long conference table surrounded by stackable meeting chairs; the walls of the set pushed back just about as far as they can go, creating a real cavernous space in which to play. In the upstage right there’s a huge white balloon – presumably the moon, but it’s never referred to and barely lit. On the stage floor a hexagon within a hexagon has been marked out with tape as though we’re in a rehearsal room.
Designer Jamie Simmons hits on a beautiful conceit here as the inner hexagon becomes the faerie forest, covered in places in up to a foot deep of multi-coloured confetti. This inevitably spills into the outer hexagon – the ‘real’ world, cleverly showing the magical corruption of the humans in the play by the antics of Puck, who joyously continues to find more bins and buckets full of confetti to dump on the stage and throw over other players. There’s a danger of Puck pulling too much focus here, but by this stage we’re in stitches anyway, so it can be forgiven. As a production it’s unapologetically anachronistic; Lysander’s lodgings in the forest are a self-erecting tent; Puck’s confetti containers are the massive Tupperware style that you might keep your Christmas decorations in; additional faerie characters are depicted by wands with LED lights on the end, and the minor changes to the script make mention of Coronation Street, Eastenders and BBC4.
The comic highlight tonight has to be the rehearsal of the mechanicals’ play, Pyramus and Thisbe (fun trivia fact – these ill fated lovers from Ovid’s Metamorphoses became the basis for Romeo and Juliet). By the time we get to this point the stage is drowning in coloured paper, most of the boys are topless and Shakespeare has descended into a parody of the acting process. Bottom is hamming it as the self-obsessed thespian always looking to big-up his part and the rest of the players appear high-as-kites on drug-laden confetti. I congratulated myself for getting the cultural reference to RuPaul’s Drag Race when cross-dressing Flute performed two backflips and a death drop. Go, Miss Vanjie.
Despite Dukes’ previous form for taking classic texts down very dark alleyways, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be Brechtian in style, but it’s also one of the funniest I can remember. It’s not without some minor quibbles such as the poetry of Shakespeare occasionally rushed or lost in delivery upstage, however tonight’s audience was very much a home crowd who knew the lines, so it didn’t seem to matter.
Lazarus have thrown an awful lot at the theatrical wall here and for the most part it sticks rather well. The intelligent staging, talented cast and shrewd direction make for a very satisfying Midsummer Night indeed.