This revival of Greg Doran’s 2005 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Novello sees the continuation of the RSC’s London season, all of which were performed in Stratford upon Avon in the summer. Following on from the unprecedented popularity of Hamlet, this production has a hard act to follow, which shows a little in the number of empty seats in the Novello Theatre the night I come to watch. Despite the lack of celebrity attraction in this production, it is an exciting and dynamic performance, filled with the magical wonder that is needed to bring alive another outing of this so-frequently performed Shakespeare work.
Modern dress is the general costume concept, which Doran says he feels works particularly well in making the distinction between lovers as clear as possible. The mechanicals too, appear in very familiar outfits, which – combined with their thick Birmingham accents—creates a scene like so many street corners in the towns of middle England.
Initially the staging (designed by Francis O’Connor) appears stark and cold—using the same mirrored floor and background as the set for Hamlet. Yet as the play progresses small touches transfer the clinical background into a twinkling dream world. A large full moon hangs high, changing from a deep red to silver, and is echoed with a large silhouetted lunar shape on the mirror backdrop, which also changes colour in reaction to the scene’s mood. Dozens of orange bulbous lights are suspended on individual strings from the ceiling and move in and out of the stage area. It is now that the maintenance of the mirrored stage works so well, as the lights multiply which, when combined with the lunar symbols, creates a celestial arena for this most magical of plays. The use of a silver crescent moon as Titania’s bed works especially well, elevating her above the stage, into the dark of the ‘night sky’ above, whilst the action continues beneath her.
The lovers each give a strong performance, illustrating well the folly and humour in this confusion of young love. Lysander (Tom Davey) performs his role as a cool, assured young adult. He is not the earnest man that could be interpreted from his lines, but adds sarcasm, which works surprisingly well. Lysander’s nonchalant attitude at first appears to show none of the youthful exuberance one would expect, yet instead he has a familiarly boyish determination, which works to great effect.
Hermia, played by Kathryn Drysdale, also gives a sincere performance. Bespeckled and dowdily dressed in a long beige cardigan, we are given a forlorn Hermia, rather than the all-too often grumpy and slightly farcical portrayal of this unfortunate youth. Peter de Jersey’s Oberon is a surprisingly powerful force in this production. He portrays a very tangible and formidable omnipresence.
The mechanicals, as is so often the case in productions of the Dream, very nearly steal the show. Pyramus and Thisbe creates a constant stream of laughter, each character’s performance as funny as the last. With many of the cast returning to the RSC to revive their roles in the original 2005 production, we are also treated with the return of Joe Dixon as Bottom. Dixon’s Bottom is the most natural and unassuming performance of one of my most beloved Shakespearean characters. Dixon presents this humorous character with a total level of innocence and a sense of contentedness not often presented in this role. This is also a truly twenty-first century Bottom, who raps and moonwalks when afeared, to show them he is not afraid.
Credit must be given here to the most fantastic revolving beard prop, which adds no end of humour to the initial mechanicals’ scene: so often it is careful little details like this that make all the difference. Bottom’s head—an enormous fluffy ass’s head, with moving ears, eyes and mouth—is a wonderful highlight of the evening. The “transformed” Bottom’s appearance is not ludicrous, but adorable as his ears swish from side to side in both fright and pleasure. Another prop which marks this production out from others is Titania’s little Indian boy. Instead of a small, living child, a doll is manipulated by the fairies, to create a surprisingly-well animated spectacle.
The music (by Paul Englishby) is wonderfully atmospheric, reflecting the mystical scenes on stage most effectively, vaguely reminiscent of a Harry Potter soundtrack. The most sublime musical moment features as Puck restores harmony between the lovers with his potion—a truly romantic and angelic passage. The only possible negative aspect would be a slight imbalance between instrumentalists and singing fairies, during their two songs. That said, the fairies are wonderfully conceived – appearing in tattered black outfits, they appear a little dark in nature, yet endearing at the same time. Doran’s direction is electric in the forest scene, where the fairies watch on invisibly, mocking the lovers. They whisper and confuse the lovers but in a way that is full of benevolence, and provokes much laughter from the audience.
The key this performance—aside from the reuniting of many from the previous production to create a powerfully adept cast—is the many small touches that combine together to make a performance larger than its parts. A good performance of the Dream must sparkle and glow with magic and wonder. This is an elusive theatrical feat, but one thing is for sure—Greg Doran and the RSC have conjured it up by the bucket-load.