When attending a given performance requires a forty-five minute subway trip followed by an hour-long bus ride, with the knowledge that said trip will have to be taken again in reverse on the way back, it’s something of a given that the performance had better be worth it. Theatre Erindale can pat itself on the back: their Midsummer Night’s Dream more than rewards the trip out, and going over it in one’s mind on the return takes care of getting back. This is an absolutely superb production, even with the occasional less fortunate detail, and is well-worth attending. Given the small number of seats available, I strongly recommend booking yours now.
For this production Theatre Erindale combines wonderful patter with vigorous physical comedy and a wealth of small details that keeps everything on stage of interest at every moment. The characterisation is especially fine, particularly when it comes to the quartet of lovers. These four are so interchangeable that they are often played as such, but here we are given four strongly defined personalities, whose contrasts only increase the comedy. Comedy is the keynote here – Erindale goes full out for laughs. There is sometimes a tendency to seek out the darker potential of Shakespeare’s comedies, apparently due to the idea that his worth lies in the depths he brings forth, which is why his tragedies are his greatest plays. This production is thoroughly free of such illusions: director Sue Miner remembers that the reason Dream is so continually popular is that it’s funny.
And so we have the contrast of the rather poncey Demetrius with his remarkably well-coiffed hair and the doting, long-suffering Lysander, the melodramatic Helena and the prissy Hermia, the uptight Egea (Hermia’s mother, replacing the more habitual Egeon) and the suitably smug Theseus, all playing out their parts in a 19th-century English town where the mourning widow Hippolyta has had to sell her factory to Theseus. Unexpectedly, it seems that there is a fairy-haunted wood nearby, neatly brought about by draping the balcony and columns of the thrust stage with greenery, where Oberon (stentorian and upright-haired) is quarrelling with Titania (shiny gown and shawl).
The fairies present perhaps the best example of Miner’s ability to fashion added narratives and add tiny jests that are enough to keep up the interest without ever detracting from the play. Puck, for instance, hairy-legged and bowler-hatted, is deeply wearied by Oberon, and is forever trying to escape his speechifying and his orders. Thus he tries to sneak away while Oberon begins his long-winded explanation of where Puck can find love-in-idleness – only to be dragged back by the fairy king, who then starts the speech all over. Titania’s waiting-fairies are a deeply amusing twittering bunch, communicating amongst themselves in sounds somewhere between insects, a distantly yipping dog, a poorly-oiled gate and a flock of gossiping songbirds, which is all much less grating than it should be. Just as Puck is not the happiest of Oberon’s employees, Titania’s fairies have distinct thoughts on their mistress. Their disgust at the whole Bottom incident and eagerness to flee once Titania gets physical with him is particularly hilarious, but then so is poor Moth (I think it is) being abandoned and forced to guard Titania all on her own.
At the same time, for all these lovely little details, Miner’s cast is not afraid to go over the top when need be, playing big without ever actually chewing the scenery (except in the play-with-a-play, of course). What especially comes back to mind is the cartoonish relationship between Hermia and Helena, as they move from trembling to bawling at the thought of being parted, Lysander’s exhaustion at dragging the over-heavy trunk Hermia insists on bringing with her, or Hermia’s despair at being abandoned by Lysander being thoroughly mocked by the invisible fairies behind her. Along with that is the plentiful physical comedy, particularly when the humans are being manipulated by the fairies. Oberon and Puck turn the Lysander/Demetrius battles into slapping contests; Helena, trying to escape the quarrel, runs away only to return again to the scene from every entrance the theatre has (with some doubtless unfeigned gasping); Oberon, coming across Demetrius and Helena, forces Demetrius to begin undressing, to the human’s utter horror.
And then there are the Mechanicals, who in this production are workers at Hippolyta’s former factory, now Theseus’s. Firstly, congratulations to dialect coach Denise Norman, who produced a lovely range of lower-class regional English accents with the Mechanicals. And then to the full group, who are just as finely characterised as the rest of the cast. April Leung’s child Snug, Megan O’Kelly’s suddenly-roped-into-acting Starveling, who loses her temper at the posh folks mocking her, Mark Snetzko’s awkward Snout, Kaitlyn Alexander’s Quince, endlessly overshadowed by Fraser Woodside as Bottom (whose grotesqueness when transformed into an ass clearly explains the disgust of Titania’s attendants at her passion), and Brian Postalian’s Flute, who as Thisbe and especially when rehearsing Thisbe will seem familiar to anyone who has ever participated in amateur or school dramatics, are a lively and more importantly credible bunch, who pull off their play with verve.
But it is unfair to point out specific actors in a production as company-minded as this, where no actor stands out due to the uniform excellence of the cast. Wes Payne’s Puck is giddily mischievous, while Marcus Haccius, as Oberon, is both overbearing and not commonly unfeeling: his physical admission that Puck’s mistake was partly his – a somewhat grumpy ‘Oh, fine’ is not something I’ve seen an Oberon admit to before. The four lovers – Lindsey Middleton as Hermia, who suits the text by being as short as Ali Richardson (Helena) is tall, Josh Wiles as a superb Lysander and Victor Pokinko both snobbish and distraught as Demetrius – are excessively well-matched.
There are some small quibbles that I have with this production: Egea’s apparent crush on Demetrius and sappy acceptance of Lysander struck me as overworked, and while the musical accompaniment to acts of magic was necessary, I could have done with something a little less clichéd than the little glissando that is used. The idea that Hippolyta’s sudden acceptance of Theseus comes from Puck deciding to use his remaining love potion on her is curious, and I don’t believe I’ve seen it before, but while fascinating it strikes me as underlining the problematic aspects of cheering on the fairies’ influence, and as these were not considered elsewhere I was left a touch bemused.
These are minor, however; more serious is the fact that Theseus’s speech on ‘the lover, the poet and the madman’ is cut short. Amusingly cut short, as the smug aristocrat is silenced by a kiss on the mouth by his newly-besotted wife; but it seems unfair to bereave him of his best speech – unfair both to Evan Williams, playing him, and to the play as a whole. At this point of the plot, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a meditation on the nature of reality, of dreams, and of theatre; philosophically speaking (and I agree that a performance of Dream is not and should not be the place to come for a philosophy lesson) this is the richest and most serious part of the play, and Theseus’s speech is a key element in this. Cutting it takes aiming for the laugh too far.
But the cut is soon forgotten with the reappearance of the Mechanicals. Quince’s company of players has a difficult task, because at this stage they always seem tacked on. It’s Shakespeare’s fault, really: the play-within-a-play is not as well-integrated into the whole as subsequent masques and shows are, even that in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Midsummer Night’s Dream always seems to be ending with the lovers leaving the wood. It feels as though it should be, and so the Mechanicals have the task of bringing the audience back in – never an easy task.
How do the Erindale Mechanicals pull off the challenge? Brilliantly. Pyramus and Thisbe at times threatens to steal the entire show, from Snout’s slow collapse down the steps forcing Bottom and Flute to kiss through the chink while lying on the floor, to the aristocrats walking onto stage for their discussion of Moonshine and Moonshine’s subsequent fury at them, to Flute’s decorous and dulcet Thisbe. But just as Pyramus threaten to steal the show of Dream, so does Fraser Woodside’s Bottom threaten to steal the show from Pyramus. Leaving aside his magnificently Spanish accent (alternating with his lower-class one) and his overwrought passion, Woodside gives us what is, bar none, the single finest case of overkill I have ever seen, in any production of Dream including all the films, or any other show in any medium. Tempting though it is to describe in detail, all I will say is that Monty Python’s ‘It’s just a flesh wound’ scene has now been surpassed, and there is a reason much of the audience had difficulty breathing at this point. While I don't want to go so far as to say this suicide alone justifies the trip out, it comes quite close to doing so.
With the return of the fairies, the company also pulls off the challenge of returning to romance at the end, as the full cast of mortals joins in a reconciliatory dance as the fairies move between them. It is a fine ending to a very fine production, where music (a mix of Mendelssohn and others), effects, and brilliant acting combine to make one forget the winter outside and weave the subtly magical spell of Shakespeare’s most enchanted play.