Friday 8th September 2017 at Leeds Carriageworks.
This co-production of Shakespeare’s wonderful magical farce from Bite My Thumb and Northern Spark Theatre is a bit of a slow burner which ends on a great high note. In brief, the story follows young lovers Hermia and Lysander who run away into an enchanted forest to escape the fate of Hermia’s rejection of an arranged marriage – her rejected suitor (Demetrius, played swaggeringly by Kamran Mohammed) and his infatuated but unwanted suit-ress (Helena, played sincerely by Beccie Allen) follow in pursuit. In another part of the forest, a band of local workers are rehearsing an amateur dramatics production and magical characters Titania, Oberon, Puck and fairies find themselves intertwined with the lives of these Athenian mortals. There’s an awful lot to praise in this production – namely the clarity of the tale and the charm of many of the performances, but there are also elements which don’t quite hit the mark, particularly as the production sells itself on the USP of the swinging sixties setting.
Some excellent talent is featured within a substantial cast for this production – most notable for diction and clarity that Will himself might have selected is Leanne O’Rourke as Hermia. O’Rourke’s characterisation is suitably upright, uptight and thoroughly infatuated in a sincere and strong performance. Finn Ella, who impressed me not so long ago in a production of Blue Stockings (review here) again offers a stand out performance here as Lysander; self-assured, gentle and capable of extracting great laughs from an audience. Angela Clare is charismatic and playful as the mischievous Puck – her Puck is clumsy, a little bit goofy and very likeable indeed. Neil Knipe is fantastic as the over-confident, risible Bottom and injects real life and colour into the piece from the moment he walks on stage. Olivia Cole also delights as Quince, with a nervous energy to tickle the ribs and a brilliantly fluctuating voice that put me in mind of the wonderful Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket!
It has to be said that while there were plenty of laughs throughout this production, they were never more prominent than when the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe was performed by the peasants. Here it really does come into its own and reach new heights and Scott Bellas’ direction of the scene with all its attention to small details is marvellous. Said workers make quite a pitiful line-up, with each character displaying some reason for their impending performance to be a disaster. What really impresses with the subsequent scenes is the way the cast beautifully intertwine the reactions of their ineffectual characters as they perform their play with the play they are presenting; from Bottom’s interactions with the guests mid-death to the desperate cries for First Aid in the background while in the foreground poor Bottom has forgotten both his line and his sword. The scenes allow the cast to prove themselves to have superb comic timing; the jealous frustration of Bottom as Flute (Ben Chamberlain) steals the lime-light with his brilliantly melodramatic performance of Thisbe’s fate remains memorable even now, as does Quince’s attempts to withstand the heaves of nerves disrupting her introductions…
The modern revisions and physical comedy are excellent in these scenes and had the rest of the production held similar modernisation at intervals, this production would have benefitted significantly. The performances are very tactile, with readings of Shakespeare’s lines heavily leaning towards the sexual undertones, often placing those undertones front and centre and often for comical impact. The direction of the physical collisions of the characters are slick and impressive, offering a good deal of energy to some of the lengthy interactions.
The production certainly moves along very nicely, presenting Shakespeare’s playfully perplexing twists with clarity and humour. There were some slightly concerning issues with volume early on, with some actors struggling to adopt the necessary proclamatory style, leaving some lines completely lost – but the volume picked up simultaneously with the pace and from then on there were only a few auditory blind spots. My real qualm is the disparity between the marketing and the production itself, which I’m a bit of a stickler for… But for costuming, a few flowers placed about the stage and a few songs/ brief dances between some scenes, the swinging sixties era as expected wasn’t really evoked within the performance of the story – visually, the production primarily appears to be neutral in time period but for costuming. I realise that one impression of the sixties leans towards lethargic visuals of flower wearing hippies in a blank haze of drugs and loving, and perhaps the marketing only seeks to suggest that the characters are in this supernatural drugged stupor of colour and light. But the alternative impression is of vibrancy, energy and free love and as this is the impression I got, I did unfortunately find the production lacking in that respect.
With plenty of talent and great displays of slick comedy, this rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is certainly a pleasing one. The psychedelic promises of the vibrant advertising didn’t quite make an appearance in my view so by all means, make the trip to see what is undoubtedly a very strong production of a great Shakespearean classic, but bear in mind that this isn’t going to be recognisably sixties in tone and energy, despite the USP.
You can catch this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Leeds Carriageworks Saturday 9th September, Guiseley Theatre on 16th September or The Halifax Playhouse 29th-30th September – more information can be found here.