It is traditional to frame the main action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream within a particularly threatening Athens, allowing the comedy to stand in contrast to the formality and danger of the court. Nancy Meckler’s new production for the RSC was no exception. Theseus (Jo Stone-Fewings) was a London mob boss and Hippolyta (Pippa Nixon) his young trophy bride. Wrapped up in an extravagant fur coat, Hippolyta sulked on a luxurious couch, shrinking away from Theseus’ advances. Theseus, in turn, struggled to understand why she failed to respond to his presents of flowers and jewellery, brought forth at the snap of his fingers by a waiting lackey.
The bare basement set pointed to the emptiness of Theseus’ gestures. Characters entered and exited via a rickety metal stairwell running down from the ceiling, and entered a dilapidated garage space populated with goons and prostitutes. Theseus presided over this seedy court, dispensing judgements on his henchman’s daughter with a casual air. A disgusted Hippolyta spat at his feet after his vow that Hermia should die if she didn’t obey her father.
Fundamentally, however, something about this society didn’t work. The play opened in semi-darkness, into which the Mechanicals were summoned to fix the electrics, descending into a trapdoor and clanging about until the power came back on. The play ended in the same way, as the bergomask dance (accompanied by live rock band) finally blew the delicate fuses, and the muttering actors descended once more into the bowels of the stage. This time, however, rather than the stark neon lights of the opening scene, a dreamlike blue descended over the stage, allowing Puck, Oberon and Titania to enter to bless the house.
This idea permeated Meckler’s production, signified in the lights of the fairy scenes that danced on fingers, chased one another around the stage or shone from the heavens. The fairy world was liberated, but also in control of its own environment. Conversely, the Athenians were shown to have no control whatsoever. As the lovers moved further into the wood, their clothes were torn off by branches and rocks (the fairies using their bodies as obstacles) and they became increasingly muddied and dishevelled. This was particularly funny as Lucy Briggs-Owen’s immaculate Helena, now torn and bedraggled, wailed “I am as ugly as a bear”. The humour, slightly cruelly, was in watching spoiled brats being made extremely uncomfortable.
Imogen Doel, standing in at short notice for Matti Houghton as Hermia, did a fine job filling in. Her diminutive stature and confident voice made her an appealing yet formidable Hermia. There were moments in the ensemble lovers’ scenes where the production lost its rhythm slightly, struggling for dynamism in the interactions, but Doel did a fine job, particularly in the physical scenes. Demetrius and Lysander’s attempts to stop her from hurting Hermia saw them throw cushions at her, dive between her legs, sit on her and, in turn, get kicked in the crotch, thrown off a sofa and shoved to the side. This Hermia was strident even in love, though, taking the soft pillows and sleeping bag for herself and forcing Lysander to sleep on his coat.
Throughout, Briggs-Owen’s Helena whined. This was by far the most narcissistic Helena I’ve ever seen. Even Lysander and Demetrius nodded off as she offered her long complaints against Hermia, and Briggs-Owen drew attention to the fact that Helena always brought things back to herself, viewing everything as a conspiracy against her. Briggs-Owen has a particular way of stressing the verse line where one would least expect it. This made for a peculiarly self-conscious delivery that suggested Helena’s blind self-obsession, and her shock at being left onstage alone manifested in a rising screech of self-pity that choked the actual words under a mess of sobs. It was an extraordinary vocal performance, made flesh in her awkwardly flailing limbs and wild gestures. She contrasted finely with the compact, self-possessed Hermia, and her neuroses left Alex Hassell’s Demetrius screaming in frustration.
The hysterics of the lovers were in contrast to Arsher Ali’s calm, sardonic Puck, underplayed to the point of being barely noticeable. He carried a broom and wore fifty or more ties under his long brown jacket, but his casual mockery of the stage action felt too disengaged. Stone-Fewings and Nixon, however, made for a wonderful Oberon and Titania. Their sexual energy was obvious, particularly as they stripped and then re-dressed one another as they transformed back into Theseus and Hippolyta in preparation for the final act. They were also played seriously, which added much-needed gravitas to the production. The evening’s most effective moment came as Titania sadly explained the effects of their feuding on the mortal world. The lights dimmed, the giggling fairies stood still, and Nixon evoked a world in disarray. A similar sobriety was lent to the description of the Indian boy, with one of the fairies acting out the boy’s mother, cradling a blanket before freezing as Titania described her death.
It was left to the Mechanicals to deliver the belly laughs, a responsibility which they accepted with gusto. Marc Wootton’s incorrigible Bottom dominated the stage, whether forcing the other actors to dive out of his way as he threw himself onto a sofa or hee-hawing his country ballads. The ass costume was created out of what was on stage as he left to await his cue: his blonde Herculean wig was styled into two long ears, and the actors’ cans of food became hooves. The inevitable dangling phallus was a bratwurst that Snug had previously been munching on, an addition by which Titania was particularly enthralled. The production squandered a lot of its laughs – the chaos of his immediate revelation was confused rather than amusing, and moments of excellent delivery by Christopher Godwin’s Quince and Felix Hayes’s Snug passed so quickly that they barely registered. The delivery of parts, for example, ended with Hayes waiting for a non-existent script, and Quince answered his confusion with a rather fey clawing action that was perfectly timed, but lost amid the movement of other actors.
The culminating performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was a suitable highlight, hitting the usual beats (Starveling’s annoyance at the interruptions of the audience, Quince’s nerves during the prologue) with a few innovations. Chiké Okonkwo as Snout became a human punchbag, repeatedly stabbed by Pyramus’s wooden sword and barely able to keep the over-acting lovers apart as they attempted to push through the wall. Eventually, he gave up, and Bottom and Michael Grady-Hall’s Flute were shocked to suddenly find themselves kissing, to general hilarity. Following the embarrassment of all, the two ran off-stage for the next scene, and were then revealed snogging passionately behind the temporary curtain that the players had set up. After Quince tore them apart, the two continued the scene, with fond glances and the occasional stroke. Pyramus was particularly entertaining during his extended death scenes, as he rolled around the stage for the benefit of each set of lovers, before crawling surreptitiously back into position.
This wasn’t the most exciting or original Dream the RSC has mounted in recent years, but it was effortlessly entertaining. The real magic came in the quiet moments of reflection, when the production achieved something transcendent in the stillness between the chaos and hinted at the underlying implications of the disruption they were causing. Even at its most superficial level, though, this was a funny and well-performed production that kept a young audience in stitches throughout.
This review first appeared at Shakespeare Revue.