A Midsummer Night's Dream

Eleanor Rhode’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC is a child’s-eye Shakespeare; a tale told in either the boring black and white of adult discourse or a colourful riot of unabashed fun; a thoroughly silly romp of visual gags which do the heavy lifting of comedic expectation; a Shakespeare as seen through the lens of an early 1980s Playaway Creative Director.

A colourful riot of unabashed fun

From the opening montage of telly test-cards (ask your grandad) and outrageous shoulder pads, it is clear that we are are no longer in the grim, shadowy badlands of 2024 but have been translated to a more hempen homespun time. A time of high-tech possibility but social naivety perfect for the conceit of this interpretation; which eschews an overt focus on the pulsing sexual shenanigans and leans instead towards a more cartoonish air.

Bally Gill opens the show as a somewhat snivelling Theseus, deliciously doubtful to have wooed anyone with his sword. And it is this rather apposite suggestion of institutional ineptitude which creates the void of authority into which Oberon (also Gill now, cosplaying Adam Ant) is more than happy to slink. Politicos take note: tricksters will rush in where gravity fears to tread.

For it is in the forest where the fun happens: a place without grown ups, boundaries, sense or self-awareness. A forest peopled by strange lights, disembodied voices, and thinks that go hump in the night. At the heart of all these revels is Rosie Sheehy’s Puck; a grubby, blue-haired sprite at once slouchy and sinuous, dragging the characters through the trees and into escapades with a casual malevolence redolent of those who intimidate street corners purely through boredom. Illusion runs through this piece like the river through Stratford; and Sheehy’s proficiency with the Hamley’s conjuring boxset heightens the fantasy, invites even the most hardened critic to believe again in magic, and provides that sense of of unease and wonder that we feel when someone else holds all the cards.

The lovers come and go; reeling variously from love, lust and hallucinogenics. Ryan Hutton (Lysander) gives a glorious performance which leaves the most lasting impact of the show: effortlessly pulling focus every time he swaggers on to the stage; breathing new life into what is frequently reduced to a stock romantic lead; and fusing tradition and modernity with apparently limitless energy. Hutton’s outrageously physical performance exemplifies one of the major strengths of this interpretation; and Movement Director Annie-Lynnette Deakin-Foster’s assured touch is never far from the surface in uproarious vignettes which are sure to captivate a younger audience desperate to find a Shakespearean comedy that is actually funny.

Helen Monks leads the Mechanicals as folksy director Quince, and is ably supported by a crew of patches which includes big-name-draw Mathew Baynton as Bottom. Baynton’s understated and generous performance invites both an element of empathy for this overbearing thespian; and permits a greater sense of ensemble than a more egotistical rendition might allow. Whilst there is perhaps a limited a romantic chemistry between Titania and her ignoble ass, this is equally true throughout all the couples’ stories and appears to be part of the U certificate concept.

This is a confident and sweet production which has not yet quite grown up; and is all the more charming for it. The costumes are both spot on and yet have the spirit of having raided the dressing up box; the actors’ legs seem to be made of that selfsame rubber as toddlers; the props feel as though they were just knocked up round the back. It takes guts and mastery to bring this level of freshness to one of the most beloved plays the world will ever know; and this scrumptious interpretation should be high on your Spring ticket wish list.

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Reviews by Rebecca Vines

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The Blurb

Four young lovers, faced with the prospect of unhappy marriage or worse, flee the court of Athens and stumble into an enchanted forest. Nearby, a group of amateur actors rehearse a play to celebrate an upcoming royal wedding. As these mere mortals cross paths with a warring fairy King and Queen, chaos reigns in the natural world. The lines between reality and illusion start to blur and no-one but mischievous Puck knows what is true and what is magic.

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