Picture this. A man and a puppet are fighting whilst the man operates the puppet. The man and the puppet are shouting lines from Shakespeare. Their shouts declare love for another puppet and admonishments to each other. The image promises mischief, mayhem, maybe even slapstick; but Box Tale Soup’s surprisingly straight-laced production delivers little of either.
Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers approach Shakespeare’s script with the utmost seriousness, creating a tame and understated style.
Director Mark Collier and actors Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers - who between them depict all of the play’s characters - approach Shakespeare’s script with the utmost seriousness, creating a tame and understated style. Into this, five large-headed, wide-mouthed hand puppets expand the cast but usually fail to add the levity promised by their adorable puppet faces.
Neither man nor manekin develop convincing characterisation. Children, like adults, want to be able to answer the question “What sort of person is this?” when they meet a new character. Is Oberon a big, proud, powerful king? Or is he a cowardly, conniving, mischievous sprite? Byrne’s performance gives few clues. “What have you done?” he asks his servant Puck after yet another mishap. On the page, the line sounds angry, or accusatory - flabbergasted perhaps. Byrne’s tone is neutral; it is hard to get a sense of how Oberon is feeling, which in turn makes it harder for children to understand the overall contours of the scene.
This also means the actors, and therefore the audience, miss opportunities to have fun. Under 10s do not always understand Shakespeare’s language but they do understand his playfulness. Play is at the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the fairies’ big, silly rhymes to the topsy-turvy upheaval of the runaway lovers. Playing goes hand-in-hand with characterisation: the mechanicals’ bragging or the lovers’ follies, for example. Removing this removes the very thing that often makes the play so popular with children. Even the reveal of Bottom’s transformation (traditionally one of the funniest moments) is met with barely a few titters from the audience.
When Box Tale Soup do let their characters play, they give us some moments of real joy: a jaded puppet-Hermia chases Helena (Christophers) around the stage; a puppet Thisbe punctuates her last words with the noisy spurting of imaginary blood. The children love these bits: there is a sense of breaking the rules, of silliness, of something-could-go-wrong.
There is also a lot to be said for Christophers and Byrne’s exquisite costume design. The Athenian lovers look particularly splendid, actor and puppet alike: one couple in royal blues and purples; the other in pinks and reds, all with parchment-coloured trim on their lapels and belts. Not only is this delightful, it also adds clarity. It is always clear which character is which, even when an actor is in role and operating two different puppets, not easy with nine characters to (sometimes almost literally) juggle.
Box Tale Soup’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is professional and slick in its transitions and execution. The costumes in particular make it look stylish and colourful. It is, though, no magic potion and rarely brings us completely under its spell.