Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the company’s second foray into Shakespeare, following its sublime and irreverent Twelfth Night. The company specialise in a form of deconstructed theatre, treating performances as “gigs” where all the machinery of performance – instruments, sound boxes, stage management, cast – are on stage throughout, and the show responds to the energy of its audience with a rare bravery.
From the start, it became clear that the company were fortunate in the young, rowdy audience in the Studio at Curve in Leicester. Full of school parties with plenty to say for themselves, it responded instantly to the appearance of an Irish Peter Quince, who came forward to welcome everyone to the show and entered into banter with the crowd. Upon learning, in a whispered conversation with the stage manager, that “local boy: Sir Richard Attenborough was not, in fact, available to play Bottom this evening, he recruited a planted audience member to play Bottom, though not before an enthusiastic student had made his own play for the part, forcing the company to fall back on made-up insurance regulations to engineer the correct choice. From this moment, it was clear that audience interaction was to be encouraged and respected, and that the company were equal to the challenge of the unexpected.
The heavily edited script riffed on Shakespeare rather than followed, with much left out – the marriage framing was completely dropped from the final act, leaving Pyramus and Thisbe to be played purely for the sake of the Leicester audience, and Starveling and Stout were dropped altogether. Flute, Quince and Snug were the onstage band, and Bottom – played by an audience member who claimed to be a musician – became their lead vocalist, repeatedly breaking out of character to demand another screamed rock anthem. The band imagery was maintained in Ferdy Roberts’s Puck, imagined here as an aging roadie with grey t-shirt, beard, tool belt and walkie-talkie, over which Oberon communicated with him.
By casting the play as concert, the play itself was viewed as the serial mounting of shows, whether on the obvious level of the Mechanicals or in Puck and Oberon setting up Titania with Bottom or the lovers in conflict. The climactic scene, as the four lovers began warring, allowed Puck and Oberon to sit on a pair of camp seats, grab a beer and bread snacks each and watch the show, drawing laughs every time they turned their chairs for a better view.
To describe the jokes would rob them of much of their humour, but I have to note that an audience of fairly hardened teenagers showed no reservations as they literally cried with laughter. Jonathan Broadbent’s Oberon in particular brought down the house. First appearing in a dressing gown, he threw it off to reveal a Superman costume underneath, which he supplemented with a manic evil laugh and childlike tantrums. This was a boy with power, playing with his walkie-talkie and thoroughly enjoying himself. To turn himself “invisible”, he made zapping noises with his hands and petulantly informed the audience he couldn’t be seen. He made his first exit by lying across a swivel chair and pretending to fly offstage, only for a loud crash to be heard. As the cast called after him to see if he was okay, he yelled back “I’m INVISIBLE!”. He wore a sling for the remainder of the play.
Childish references were put in everywhere. Lysander and Demetrius, after exiting for their duel, were reintroduced in the manner of arcade beat-em-up heroes, before proceeding to mime a game of Pong. Quince ordered Flute to play Thisbe as Vivian Leigh, and Hermia erected an instant tent for her luxurious night’s sleep. During the final quarrel, which saw the four young lovers race around the entire auditorium, Lysander and Demetrius began throwing bread at Hermia, which she threw back. As audience members began to be hit and started throwing it back, Puck and Oberon ran round passing out more bread until the entire theatre was engaged in a food fight, culminating in everyone throwing everything they had at Hermia.
I did have concern, however, about the cruelty implied in this episode. The enthusiasm with which not only the on-stage characters but also the audience were encouraged to throw bread at the wretched Hermia jarred with the generosity elsewhere. To make the most delighted and participatory moment of the play the physical abuse of the character, eventually knocked backwards into her tent, surely invited some form of internal critique or challenge to the audience, which was not forthcoming. To take the most severe stance, it seemed to condone the idea that the best way to deal with a woman asserting her own rights is to subject her to physical and verbal abuse until she shuts up and/or runs away. Despite the comic tone, this scene felt a little ugly, and drew my mind to the “Oh, not again” response of Theseus to Hippolyta storming out at the end of the first scene, and to the ease with which Helena succumbed to the altered Demetrius’ advances before changing her mind. As hysterical as the production was, a few too many of the laughs came at the expense of the women for my tastes.
The lovers were cast young and very sexual, with Helena allowing both Lysander and Demetrius to writhe with her on the floor for a while before realising that there were two men involved. There were a lot of teen ‘tudes, and the men in particular made themselves ridiculous as they gyrated to the music in their heads while wooing Helena. Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus were played straight, in contrast to what followed; but the always-excellent Gemma Saunders had relatively little to do as Titania. Bottom had more impact. As the actor reading his script for the first half of the show, he inserted comments and judgements into the action, before coming into his own as he read the rehearsal lines. Re-entering as the donkey, there was no physical change in his appearance, but the rest of the cast used coconut shells and braying noises to add imagined donkey aspects to his gait and voice. Puck dangled a carrot for him, which he bit off a huge chunk of, and the rest of the cast began corpsing as he patiently munched on his carrot with an apologetic shrug to the audience before resuming.
The delight of unexpected moments such as this was in how shared they were with the audience. The back and forth within the auditorium was such that when, for example, Quince took the audience request of “Do it as a Gothic Horror” by performing the Prologue in the style of Bela Lugosi, one could no longer tell whether it was a genuine request or a plant. Bottom’s finale as Pyramus was initially played surprisingly straight, but concluded with an eccentric death scene. He lay on the floor, and then screamed at the band when they began playing the exit music. Lying back down, the entire production stopped, allowing the audience to become increasingly hysterical. After a minute or so, members of the audience began cat-calling, including the teen from the start shouting out “I bet you wish I’d done it now”. Pyramus’s still death lasted a seeming eternity, until he finally jumped up and led the cast in a final number.
The standing ovation was testament to how expertly this production addressed its audience. Audience and cast boosted each other’s energy levels, creating a contract of mutual challenge that invested the entire auditorium in the performance. Despite my concerns about the bullying atmosphere of certain moment, this was an absolute triumph.