The problem with classic plays is that you do kind of need to reinvent them every once in a while; there are some people who I know would be happy seeing basically the same thing trotted out time after time, but most of us need some variety. Shakespeare is a big feature here, as you may expect, especially as so often the same play ends up being produced multiple times in a short space of time. This is, of course, the case with A Midsummer Night’s Dream – currently playing in three major London venues simultaneously. The latest on my list is Dominic Hill’s version that has just opened at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
It opens at a point of celebration: Theseus is set to marry Hippolyta (though she’s yet to be convinced about it) and has organised some revelry. This is soon interrupted by Egeus, however, as he objects to his daughter Hermia’s new relationship with Lysander – he had her betrothed to Demetrius some time ago, and wants the law to intervene on his behalf. Not content to be ruled by her father, she leaves Athens that night with Lysander; they are followed by Demetrius and Hermia’s oldest friend Helena, who is in love with Demetrius and hopes to gain some favour by telling him of the pair’s flight. In the midst of all this, some mechanicals are rehearsing a play to perform at Theseus’ nuptial celebrations, though one of their number (Nick Bottom) unknowingly gets drawn into Oberon’s disagreement with his fairy queen Titania, with interesting results…
A couple of years ago, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of the same play at the Young Vic aimed to draw on the dark side of the play, but the end result was a loss of the magic & comedy, as well as a cast covered in mud. This Regent’s Park production has had far more success. There is a surprising amount of darkness in the story – don’t forget, Demetrius actually remains under the influence of love-in-idleness at the end of the night, and Titania is left to go who knows how far with Bottom when she is given the same drug – and it is refreshing to see that side get effectively tapped into. Especially given the natural surroundings in the park; Rachael Canning’s designs are quite Tim Burton-esque in style, with some fairies on four stilts and stealthily emerging from the trees. I half expected to come across a few more of them as I walked through the Inner Circle after the show – that’s the mark of a good show indeed.
It’s perfectly created for an evening performance, getting darker as things get more and more magical, and Ben Ormerod’s lighting design plays a big part here. The final scene, lit by illuminated balloons, is absolutely enchanting; Glaswegian Puck (played by a sprightly Myra McFadyen) has the audience in the palm of her hand, and we need no second invitation to ‘give our hands’ as the play concludes. A spell-binding moment that rounds off the play perfectly. Simon Baker & Jay Jones’ sound design does an impeccable job of subtly enveloping the audience in this dream world, making you feel completely immersed in the story.
Some of the comedy doesn’t quite land (the first half takes a little while to really get going), and some bits are gentler than others, but it retains just enough to keep its status as a comedy. Pyramus & Thisbe remains a standout section on the funny side of things, the Mechanicals providing most of the light relief – Gareth Snook is a delight as Quince (especially mouthing along to the lines of Pyramus & Thisbe), and Susan Wokoma is confident but not completely overbearing as Bottom, making her popularity with her fellow mechanicals more understandable.
Of the lovers, Pierro Niel-Mee impresses as a slightly wimpy Demetrius (often this character ends up as a bit of an alpha male, so this change is refreshing), and Gabrielle Brooks is a force of nature as Hermia – her anger & heartbreak are palpable, and the words trip quite naturally off her tongue. Remy Beasley has a bit of a tendency to blurt her lines out in great chunks (a shame, as Helena has some excellent speeches), though her commitment to the physicality of the role must be commended. Credit should also be given to the fairies (Yana Penrose, Emily Rose-Salter, Simon Oskarsson, Matthew James Hinchliffe & Mei MacMei Mac) – as well as some of them having to grapple with the stilts, they also incorporate sign language into their roles in a beautifully simple way. Everything adds up to a magical evening.
My verdict? A spell-binding take on the popular comedy, utilising the natural surroundings to great effect – the Mechanicals are a delight.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 27 July 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.